European Elections: New age of anxiety dawns: Elections come at a time of uncertainty over the future of most national governments

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EUROPE goes to the polls this week, depressed, dubious and disillusioned.

Economically the European Union's 340 million citizens have rarely had it so bad. Unemployment stands at a record 11 per cent on average: in Spain, one in four of the workforce is without a job. The advantages of a barrier-free Europe have yet to be translated into prosperity and growth.

Politicians have proved unequal to the task of halting the war in Bosnia, the first conflict in Europe since 1945. The collapse of communism has swept away old certainties abroad and encouraged large-scale immigration, while at home governments struggle to contain burgeoning health budgets, spiralling education costs and the widespread abuse of drugs. Corruption is rife among the political class of at least three EU member states.

Against such a background it is scarcely surprising that the European election campaign has managed to tap only a huge well of apathy. In the last such poll five years ago, the average turn-out was 58.4 per cent, a figure distorted by the fact that voting is compulsory in Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg. In Britain, the score was a miserable 36.2 per cent.

In most countries the poll is less about the future construction of Europe than it is a plebiscite on the performance of the incumbent national government. This is partly because the European parliament is still widely misunderstood and little loved, but also because the elections happen to coincide with a broad realignment of traditional political allegiances. In three of the 12 member states, a general election will be held within the next 12 months.

Luxembourg's is scheduled for the same day as the European elections. In Germany, voters are being asked to turn out 19 times this year, with the European elections falling between the presidential elections at the end of May and the Bundestag elections in October, when the electorate will pass judgement on the man responsible for shaping German unification - Helmut Kohl.

In France, next spring will see the retirement of President Francois Mitterrand, and despite the right-wing cohabitation that has already ensured the reversal of socialism, his departure is still, psychologically, the end of an era.

The political future is at least as uncertain in four other member states. In Britain the European elections are little more than a test of John Major. The widely anticipated Tory rout risks blowing open yet again the party divide over Europe and adding to Labour's growing popularity.

In Spain, the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez is experiencing a similar trial of strength. The party that has underpinned the country's recovery from fascism is under assault as a result of corruption scandals. If the opposition right does well in the European elections, it may be difficult to avoid a general election in the autumn, though the issue will turn in part on the allegiance of the Basque and Catalan nationalists who are supporting Mr Gonzalez's minority government.

In Belgium, too, the centre- left coalition is deeply unpopular, with the Socialist side of the partnership also badly tainted by corruption. Municipal elections are scheduled for October, and the European elections are seen as a reliable prediction of voting intentions. The Belgian Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, is an undeclared candidate to replace Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, and the ambiguity over his position has further undermined the coalition he and his Christian Democrat CVP party dominate.

In Denmark, now more sceptical about the value of EU membership than Britain, the prospect of parliamentary elections in December has turned the European campaign into a popularity contest between the centre-left four-party government and the opposition led by the popular Uffe Ellemann- Jensen. Danish parties have for the first time fielded heavyweight politicians in an effort to improve voter turn-out, which was 46.1 per cent in 1989. Though domestic issues again dominate, Denmark, unlike any other EU member state, has party formations such as the June Movement that enable electors to vote against Europe without having to vote for an extremist party. Though often internally split on Europe, like the British Conservatives, most parties must present a united front for domestic reasons.

Voter fatigue is bound to be a factor in the Netherlands and Italy where general elections earlier in the year have in relative terms reashaped the political landscape, with the emergence of Silvio Berlusconi and neo-Fascists in Italy and a landslide defeat for the dominant Christian Democrat party in the Netherlands.

Only Portugal, Ireland and Greece - all big beneficiaries of EU funds, are enjoying a period of political stability, though the term is always relative in Greece.

In Ireland, the peculiarities of the electoral system mean that candidates of the same party may campaign against each other, leading to hustings driven by personalities who, since they have a common approach to European issues, are forced to emphasise their domestic policy differences.

(Photograph omitted)