Leading article: We will all lose out if we don't take Europe seriously

Failure to vote in June would mean missing a chance to shape our future
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The Independent Online

It is almost inevitable that the European elections on 4 June will be seen in Britain principally as a plebiscite on Gordon Brown and as an opportunity to give Labour a good kicking. Public interest, usually limited in these contests, will be directed to what the outcome means for Mr Brown and to talk of fresh leadership challenges if, as expected, Labour's share of the vote sinks even further than it did in 2004.

Meanwhile, far-right parties like the BNP will be busy. One side-effect of the low turnout in European votes is that the most extreme Europhobes, with their core of dedicated voters, tend to do well.

A lack of engagement on the part of most Britons in European elections has been there from the start. Only 31 per cent of Britons bothered to vote for their first MEPs in 1979 – less than half the EU average. Depressingly, Europe is "catching up" with Britain in this respect; only 45 per cent of Europeans voted in 2004.

This growing indifference is foolish and a pity, not just because of the obvious point that European legislation directly affects all of our lives. If we in Britain are mentally absent from the work of the Brussels-Strasbourg parliament, the Union is deprived of an important player at a time when it risks seeming increasingly adrift.

The crucial issue of enlargement – how fast it should proceed and how far it should go – is hanging in the air as our partners haggle over the applications of Turkey, Croatia and, further down the line, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia. Disgracefully, some newer EU members have taken advantage of this air of muddle to blackmail some of their neighbours that are EU applicants, demanding concessions as the price of allowing their applications to proceed.

At the same time, the Lisbon treaty, designed to speed up the EU's cumbersome decision-making processes, gathers dust, years after Ireland torpedoed a deal in a referendum.

It may be unrealistic to expect most Britons, preoccupied with jobs, debts and house prices, to take a close interest in the fate of the treaty or the state of Croatia's membership application. It doesn't help that the two big parties here studiedly shun discussion of Europe, acting almost as if it doesn't exist as a political entity.

Gordon Brown doesn't even try to conceal his impatience with Euro-summitry or his belief that the relationship with Washington is far more important than anything happening in Brussels. David Cameron has dealt with a topic that had divided the Tories by barely mentioning it.

The Tory leader has indeed pulled off an astute political trick. Presenting himself to voters as a moderate centrist European, he is simultaneously appeasing his party's Euro-sceptics by pulling Tory MEPS out of the European People's Party, the umbrella for centre-right parties in Brussels, on the grounds that it is too federalist. Essentially, this will mean Tory MEPs sitting in the new assembly on their own or in the motley company of fringe groups. Once again, Britain's overall impact in Europe is sacrificed on the altar of party-political calculations.

What to do, except try to shame both the Tories and Labour parties out of their calculated policy of keeping a distance from Europe and the dreaded Brussels bureaucrats? This may be hard, as it suits them politically to pose as the UK awkward squad. But all that they are doing is cutting off the branch on which we sit. We need to get the European project back on track and to contribute more to solving its all too obvious problems. We need to vote.