Leading Article: Euro apathy hurts us all

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EVEN IN a dismal election in which less than a quarter of people bothered to vote - the lowest national turnout in British history - the district of Hope House in Sunderland stands out. There, of the 970 people who were registered to vote in Thursday's European elections, a mere 15 turned out. That constituted a staggering 1.5 per cent, which made the paltry English average of 23 per cent look handsome.

It would be easy to mark this as a triumph of experience over Hope. The voters there, as elsewhere, evidently regard the European Parliament as irrelevant. They see the European Commission as a mire of waste, corruption and fraud - for which commissioners have been effectively sacked but continue yet in their high-paid jobs. They regard the whole European project as distant and something from which they feel disengaged - the measure of this is that even a place like Liverpool's Riverside constituency recorded a turnout of under 10 per cent, despite the fact that Merseyside is receiving pounds 650m from Europe under its Objective One status, which is transforming the city's infrastructure, refurbishing people's houses and funding job- creation, training and the setting up of small businesses. The Europhobes of the press and the Conservative Party will have their champagne on ice already, in anticipation of the results which will be announced from tomorrow. The turnout was better in Tory areas - as high as 30 per cent in some rural seats - and the assumption will be that raising higher the banner of Euro-doubt will have proved William Hague's best strategic decision to date. They should think again.

Labour was always going to be hammered in this election. Even if it had kept its share of the 1997 vote it would still have lost 20 of its 62 European seats because of the new proportional representation system. Tony Blair's double disadvantage was that the Tories had their worst Euro result ever five years ago; any improvement on that was bound to hit Labour. Combine all that with the miserable turnout and it is evident that for Hague to have won a bigger percentage of a shrunken vote is something of an ambiguous triumph. But Blair made all this worse for himself. Labour fought this election with its arms folded. Blair refused a television debate with William Hague and Paddy Ashdown. Few of his cabinet took to the hustings; grassroots activists were noticeable by their absence from the doorstep; advertising was non-existent. Gordon Brown, in a rare foray into the campaign, gave a speech in Newcastle which concentrated on the Government's domestic achievements and Conservative Euro-extremism. In his 13-page speech, he did not mention the single currency once. So anxious was Blair that the elections should not become a referendum on the single currency that Labour virtually ran an election campaign for the European Parliament without mentioning Europe. The public responded with apathy. More than that, it allowed the Tories to set the election agenda with their hardened Euroscepticism. Blair's Machiavellian plan was not to mention the E-word and then, when the election was safely past, to relaunch his drive for single-currency membership next month. The plan has backfired.

The irony is that Tony Blair has a vision of Europe - and a track record for operating within it - which ought to have given him the high ground of common sense. He has helped to focus Europe on creating jobs and lasting prosperity. He has protected Britain's pounds 2bn rebate and won more money for regional support. He is resisting the excesses of harmonisation, urging reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and pressing for reforms to curb waste, corruption, cronyism and lax accounting. His unrealistic suggestion that Europe should switch to an Anglo-American economic model seems likely to be offset by the document he is soon to publish jointly with the German Chancellor, setting out the centre-left agenda for Europe. The Balkan war has renewed pressure for a convincing European defence force. Military dependence on the United States is not in Europe's interests. (Nor, of course, is it in the interests of the United States indefinitely to prop up Europe.) There is much left to do. But had Tony Blair been honest with the voters about his past achievements and his future plans, it might have produced a better result for Labour. And for the country, too.