Stephen Castle: EU is too young and weak to shrug off an electorate's apathy

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In 1999, when turnout dipped below 50 per cent for the first time in Europe-wide elections, some officials in Brussels thought they had seen voter apathy at its most extreme. Now they know better.

In 1999, when turnout dipped below 50 per cent for the first time in Europe-wide elections, some officials in Brussels thought they had seen voter apathy at its most extreme. Now they know better.

Just two months after the EU celebrated the historic reunification of the continent by admitting 10 new, mainly ex-Communist countries, it has received a sobering message from its public.

Well under half of the 350 million eligible voterscast a ballot during the four days of elections across the continent, producing a new record low turnout. And of those that did, an increased number backed Eurosceptics.

True, this electoral contest is hardly unique in seeing a drop in voter participation. Most national elections have followed a similar trend and, as MEPs point out, no one questions the legitimacy of democracy in America when less than half the population turns out to vote.

But for a young institution which has gained a wide array of powers without connecting properly to its population, the result is deeply damaging.

The year after they turned out to vote in referendums on whether to join the EU, an alarming number of voters in the new nations decided to stay at home. In Slovakia barely one-fifth of those entitled to vote did so - hitting a new low point - with only slightly more Poles bothering.

Ironically, the results do little to the overall arithmetic of the European Parliament. Early projections suggest that the centre-right bloc will remain the largest with between 247 and 277 MEP, followed by the socialists with 189 to 209, and the Liberals scoring between 54 and 70. Those figures will almost certainly change with the Liberals taking some MEPs from the centre-right because of an internal shift of alliances.

Yet beneath this picture of continuity an earthquake has taken place. Of the 732 MEPs elected to the Strasbourg assembly, maybe one tenth will be hostile to the EU in its current form. And - for the first time - there will be a significant number who hate the whole enterprise so much they want to take their country out of the EU.

Meanwhile, the existing centre-right groups may well shift in a Eurosceptic direction to try to see off the affect from their rivals. Among the reduced British Conservative MEP contingent, for example, the balance will change, with some of the pro-Europeans losing their seats.

In one respect this could, perversely, be a good moment for the European Parliament. The new intake is likely to be more lively than the old one, complete with mavericks like Robert Kilroy-Silk, the British former daytime TV presenter, and Hans-Peter Martin, the MEP who used a video camera to expose the shenanigans of his colleagues in claiming their generous allowances.

Moreover, the injection of more Eurosceptics will bring the political centre of gravity of the parliament closer to that of the European public opinion.

Pat Cox, outgoing president of the parliament, argued last night that, for Britain, "there may be a silver lining in the UKIP results because they have a very clear and strident view about what they want to see. The others have to realise that you cannot be slightly pregnant in being for Europe. Those who believe in it have to deliver and stop hanging back."

Indeed, a proper debate within the EU's only directly-elected institution can only be for the good. The question is whether this diverse band of Eurosceptics will play that role and exploit their new position of influence.

During the past five years, UKIP's three MEPs have made almost no impact on the parliament, and Mr Kilroy-Silk said during the election campaign that he does not intend to go to Strasbourg.

As one official put it last night, "There is going to be a large proportion of the new parliament that are not going to do anything very much at all. The Eurosceptics are, because of their divisions, going to be neutered." That, paradoxically, would be more bad news for the European Parliament.

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