Eurosceptics likely to gain from voter apathy in EU election

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The Independent Online

Confronted by alarming levels of apathy and a rising tide of Euroscepticism, Europe's politicians yesterday launched a desperate attempt to persuade voters to take part in the world's largest transnational election.

Confronted by alarming levels of apathy and a rising tide of Euroscepticism, Europe's politicians yesterday launched a desperate attempt to persuade voters to take part in the world's largest transnational election.

The president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, issued an appeal for people to vote in elections to the Strasbourg assembly to be held in two weeks' time, arguing: "If Europe is to work it needs more of the fresh air of democracy."

The leader of the Party of European Socialists and former Danish premier, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, even urged voters to cast their ballots as a mark of respect to the dead of the Second World War, adding: "The soldiers who died for democracy did not have such choices."

Although the EU has just celebrated its expansion and the European Parliament has more powers than ever, MEPs are bracing themselves for results which may call into question their legitimacy.

Between 10 and 13 June no fewer than 350 million voters in 25 nations will be asked to elect 732 representatives to the European Parliament. Not even a field of candidates boasting Oscar and Nobel prize-winners, a brace of astronauts, several television presenters and a former porn star, seems enough to stir Europe's voters from their lethargy.

According to a Gallup poll, less than half of those entitled to vote are certain to do so. Britain, where turnout was just 24 per cent in 1999, is expected to perform better because of the wider use of postal ballots and because the vote will coincide with local elections.

But some of the countries which recently decided by referendum to join the EU appear to have had their fill of the voting booth, while turnout will fall in several of the older member states. Only 27 per cent of Slovakians, 26 per cent of Estonians and one in five Czechs say they are certain to cast a ballot.

Overall, 45 per cent of EU citizens say they will definitely go to the polls though, if those who say they are "virtually certain" to turn up are added in, turnout could creep over the psychologically important 50 per cent mark. Were that to happen it would mark the first rise in turnout since direct elections to the parliament began in 1979.

Even then, many who do turn out will vote to increase the Eurosceptic contingent. Jens Peter Bonde, the veteran Danish Eurosceptic MEP, said: "We are talking about more than doubling the Eurosceptic influence in the parliament. There will be a completely new situation if the opinion polls are right."

Mr Bonde, whose leads a group of 18 MEPs, will hope to double its size with an influx from the new member states, particularly Poland, where the anti-EU Self Defence Party led by Andrez Lepper is expected to score well. The centre-right bloc may also recruit more sceptics.

Boosted by the high-profile candidature of the former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk and the endorsement of the film star Joan Collins, the UK Independence Party - which wants to take Britain out of the EU - is likely to win more than 10 per cent of the vote and double its contingent of three MEPs.

However Richard Corbett, constitutional affairs spokes-man for the Socialist group, argues: "Bonde's group is a mixture. Bonde does not want his country to leave the Union; UKIP want to take Britain out; the Poles want a better deal for their agricultural sector. There are different agendas and no uniform view."

Academics are predicting that the centre-right will emerge as the biggest group, with 285 MEPs, followed by the Socialists with 217 and the Liberals with 73. But calculations are complicated by the entry of new countries, and the anticipated realignment of the political blocs after the elections.

The Parliament has done itself few favours by spurning Mr Cox's efforts to clean up its notoriously lax expenses regime. Meanwhile an Austrian MEP, Hans-Peter Martin, sent shock waves through the German-speaking world with his revelation that around 200 MEPs are claiming generous attendance allowances for days when they are not working. But most people are likely to vote on domestic issues and many will take the opportunity to punish unpopular national governments.

That means that, though the results may not be good for the reputation of the European Parliament, they could be worse for many of Europe's prime ministers.

THE HOPEFUL MEPS

CARMEN KASS

The supermodel Kass, 25, has star quality but no political experience. Standing for Estonia's conservative Res Publica party, she wants to give something back to her country

JENS PETER BONDE

Veteran Danish Eurosceptic who senses the tide is turning in his direction. Will hope to co-ordinate a bigger Eurosceptic bloc in the new parliament and fight the EU constitution

KATERINA BOCHNICKOVA

A former porn star, also known as Dolly Buster. Her party in the Czech Republic used to be known as the Independent Erotic Initiative - though now it has dropped the "erotic" bit

MARTIN SCHULZ

The German socialist MEP who was likened by Silvio Berlusconi to a Nazi concentration camp commandant. He could emerge as the leader of the socialist group

VLADIMIR REMEK

His role in a 1978 Soyuz mission makes him the only Czech cosmonaut and the first non-Russian or non-American in space. A 55-year-old former diplomat, he plans to focus on trade policy

ANDRZEJ WAJDA

Poland's most famous living film director and winner of an honorary Oscar in 2000 was elected to the Polish parliament in 1989 for the Solidarity party

ARI VATANEN

The former rally driver is standing for re-election, aiming to prove his Euro credentials by seeking to represent a region in the south of France, where he lives, rather than his native Finland

GRAHAM WATSON

Leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament and leading advocate of civil liberties. His group wants to swell its ranks and take a pivotal role in the parliament

LILLI GRUBER

Among the best-known Italian television presenters, she left the state broadcaster Rai this year in protest at media control by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi

ROBERT KILROY-SILK

The former TV host and Labour MP, fired by the BBC after making derogatory remarks about Arabs. Celebrity signing for the UK Independence Party, which wants Britain out of EU

DANIEL COHN-BENDIT

Once known as Danny the Red, the former student rebel is the dominant force in the Green Party and among the most pro-European candidates. He is standing for a German list

HANS-GERT PÖTTERING

Leader of the German Christian Democrats, Mr Pottering was a centre-right force in the outgoing parliament, and could be president of the next one

HANS-PETER MARTIN

Austrian MEP and former investigative journalist running on a "clean-up Strasbourg" ticket. Made enemies by filming MEPs signing for €262 attendance allowances, then leaving

GLENYS KINNOCK

Britain's best-known MEP has long made the transition from wife of the former Labour leader to politician in her own right. Renowned for not always toeing the party line

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