Leading article: This election should be about Europe, not MPs' expenses

It would be regrettable if the public cast their ballots solely out of anger

Monday 01 June 2009 00:00 BST

This really ought to be Europe's moment. The great issues of the day, from the financial crisis, to energy security, to climate change are all, to a significant degree, European issues. The banking meltdown did not respect national boundaries. Nor will the effects of global warming. And those who doubt Europe's economic interconnectedness should pay heed to the meltdown of General Motors. The auto giant's European arm owns car plants from Cheshire to Hungary and employs tens of thousands of workers. We all have an interest in the manner in which this corporate behemoth breaks up.

It makes every sense to tackle such challenges through close co-operation with our European peers. On the world stage, Europe's influence is growing too. In Barack Obama, America has an avowedly multi-lateralist President, keen for Europe to relieve the US of some of its duties as the world's policeman.

For the European Union this is a golden opportunity. And for the 375 million electors of Europe, this week's European Parliamentary elections are an important chance to shape the direction and priorities of the EU. The European Parliament may wield less direct power than its national counterparts, but as the primary voice in Brussels of the European citizenry, it certainly matters.

Yet the British electorate is showing depressingly little interest in the European nature of these elections. The focus of the debate has been on Westminster, not Brussels. It is true the British public has always had a tendency to use European elections to kick whichever party is in power in Westminster. European manifestos have never been closely studied documents. But this year the tendency to vote out of protest is likely to be especially pronounced thanks to the public's volcanic anger over the Westminster expenses scandal.

And it is not only the Government which is in for a pummelling on Thursday. The polls suggest that all three of the main parties are likely to see their vote squeezed, with fringe parties such as the UK Independence Party and the British National Party enjoying a spike in their support. It has even been suggested that UKIP might grab the second largest share of the vote.

The public's anger over the manner in which MPs have been greedily maximising their allowances is understandable. But it would be deeply regrettable if people went into the polling booths on Thursday intent solely on demonstrating their anger over MPs expenses. For one thing this would be to waste an opportunity to influence European decision-making on a host of crucial issues, from EU enlargement to environmental regulation. For another, it is all very well to protest against the major parties but it also matters who benefits from votes of disaffection.

A vote for the BNP would do nothing but put wind in the sails of a party with nothing to offer but vicious bigotry. As for UKIP, it would make no sense to punish the perceived venality of the mainstream parties by voting for a party which has experienced its own well-documented financial scandals in recent years. And UKIP's policies are no more credible than its claims to the moral high ground. All the party offers is isolation and increasing irrelevance for Britain internationally.

When it comes to the mainstream parties, they are a rather mixed bag on Europe. The Conservatives might not go as far as UKIP in terms of seeking to remove Britain from the European mainstream, but David Cameron's efforts to pull his MEPs out of the centre-right bloc of the European Parliament, reflect the Tories' stubborn unwillingness to work within the existing structures and alliances of the European Union. Mr Cameron has proved himself an admirable reformer of his party in several respects, but when it comes to Europe he is still worryingly content to pander to its most regressive instincts.

Labour, to its credit, has pushed from within the European Parliament for the economic liberalisation that the EU requires to increase the prosperity of all, despite the protectionist instincts of many of its colleagues in the social democratic bloc of Brussels. But it is the Liberal Democrats who have been the most consistently constructive British party on the European Union, a stance which has given their honest criticisms of Brussels' shortcomings all the more credibility.

Yet party considerations aside, the imperative this week is participation. Decisions taken in the cockpit of European democracy will affect all our lives. We hope that Britons will be able briefly to raise their eyes this week from the row over MPs' expenses and cast their vote with some of the grave challenges facing us all, as Europeans, in mind.

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