British apathy set to undermine Euro-elections

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The Independent Online

Fewer than one in five Britons can be relied on to vote in this year's European elections, according to an opinion poll that also reveals glaring gaps in knowledge about the European Union and the workings of MEPs.

Adrive to sell Europe's merits to a sceptical public will be launched next month in an effort to prevent turnout plunging to a record low.

With just 18 per cent of Britons who were asked in the Mori poll saying that they were certain to vote to elect the next European Parliament, participation on 10 June could be even lower than the turnout in 1999, which was a record low. In that year fewer people voted on the day than told pollsters in advance that they definitely would.

The Mori findings, which leaves British voters trailing far behind their European counterparts, have prompted the European Parliament to approve a special initiative aimed at the UK voter. Telephone canvassers will urge hundreds of thousands of people to exercise their democratic right to vote. They will remind people of the date and will make the case for voting by listing areas of daily life over which Brussels has an influence.

The findings will alarm Westminster politicians a year ahead of the general election expected to take place in the spring or early summer of 2005. When the country went to the polls in 2001, just 59 per cent of adults voted, the smallest peacetime turnout for a century.

But the Mori survey did not appear to take into account the fact that the European elections and the local elections will be held on the same day this year, something that might increase participation rates.

Mori uncovered a mixture of apathy, ignorance and hostility towards the European Union. Just 9 per cent of people thought it was the most important issue facing the country, while 20 per cent wrongly thought the European Parliament had power over income tax and a third of Britons mistakenly thought they would have to carry a European identity card by the end of this year. It revealed a list of issues - such as the environment, animal rights and workplace conditions - on which people held strong views but did not realise were influenced by Brussels.

The average turnout in the 1999 EU elections was 50 per cent, with the highest proportion voting in Belgium (90 per cent), Luxembourg (85 per cent), Italy and Greece (both 70 per cent). Apart from Britain, the lowest figures were recorded in the Netherlands (29 per cent) and Finland (30 per cent).