EU voters cast protest ballot

Record abstention rates marred the four-day, 25-nation poll; many used it to express dissatisfaction.

Election officials from Poland to Portugal found one thing in common as they counted votes for the European Parliament on Sunday night: it did not take them long to finish their job.

Record abstention rates marred the 25-nation poll; Those who did turn out used the election mainly to express dissatisfaction with their national governments rather than any opinion about the European Union.

Every ruling party in Europe, save the recently elected Spanish Socialists and Greek Conservatives, suffered setbacks, some of them dramatic. "Voters suffering from mid-term blues wanted to give their governments a bloody nose without having to face the consequences," says Steven Everts, an analyst with the Center for European Reform, a think tank in London.

At the same time, he adds, the 55 percent abstention rate revealed "a growing indifference and apathy - and in some countries outright hostility - to greater European integration. Supporters of the project have some explaining and reconnecting to do."

"This is a wake-up call," outgoing European Parliament President Pat Cox told reporters. "Europe has been too absent in too many campaigns."

Ironically, enthusiasm was at its lowest ebb in the Eastern European nations that joined the EU only six weeks ago. In Poland, for example, the turnout was just 20 percent. "There is a kind of huge disinterest in any political issues" because of widespread corruption, says Anna Rozick, director of the Batory Foundation, a Warsaw think tank. "When people don't want to participate in public life because of political parties' bad image ... it is very difficult to persuade them that by voting they can change anything."

Antigovernment protest

Poland, where the ruling Socialist Party was beaten into fifth place, was also emblematic of another widespread trend, the antigovernment protest vote. In Western Europe, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was hardest hit: his Social Democratic Party took just 21 percent of the vote in its worst result since 1949. The conservative German opposition's success helped boost the center-right grouping in the 732- member European Parliament to top place, with 269 seats.

The British, Danish, Dutch, and - to a lesser extent - Italian governments suffered at the hands of voters angry about their support for US policy in Iraq. And French President Jacques Chirac's ruling party, like Mr. Schröder's party, took a drubbing because of unpopular economic and social reforms and economic stagnation.

Most political parties stood on platforms built mainly from domestic issues. Some observers suggest that this explained some of the lack of interest in the elections. "Your capacity to attract voters diminishes if you operate on left-overs from national domestic campaigns," argues John Palmer, political director of the independent European Policy Centre in Brussels.

To interest voters, he says, parties that have conducted their campaigns at a national level "must begin to assert themselves as serious players at the European level."

Many other analysts anxious to give European integration some real life agree. "We have to create a political space in Europe with large European parties," French Socialist leader François Hollande argued on French radio Monday morning. "To the extent that European affairs are clear and comprehensible we will see turnouts that match our great ambitions for Europe."

That won't happen, warns Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the European Greens, until Europe-wide parties put up transnational lists "headed by real European leaders who make it clear to voters that they are choosing a particular vision of Europe" - more integrated or less so, more state oriented or more free market.

This year the ecologist Green parties were the first to set up a continental campaign structure with common themes, posters, and slogans in all 25 EU member states. Though results varied widely between countries, "the parties most heavily involved in the Europe-wide campaign were the ones that did best, and the ones that didn't use it much did poorly," says Mr. Cohn-Bendit.

Growing powers

The European Parliament has significant and growing powers in running the EU. Created in 1979 as a democratic counterweight to the EU's powerful unelected Commission, it now has a much bigger say than most European citizens realize in the EU's $120 billion budget, and in drafting labor, transport, and environmental legislation.

Voters see no clear outcome from their trip to the polling stations, though. No new government was formed on Sunday night, when all the 157 million votes were in. Under a new EU Constitution, due to be adopted at a summit later this week, the European Commission would reflect Parliament's political make-up, and parties might present their candidates for the Commission's presidency as the head of their election lists.

But this will not happen for several years, and meanwhile, says Cohn- Bendit, European Parliament members must do more to explain the value of their work. Hardly anybody knows, for example, that the Parliament has voted against a recent EU agreement with the US under which European airlines will provide US authorities in advance with a wide range of personal details about all the transatlantic passengers they carry.

Parliament does not have the power to block the deal, but will vote Tuesday to take the European Commission to court to try to overturn it. "Here is a fundamental debate involving questions of personal privacy and security, but you won't find it in any newspapers," says Cohn-Bendit. "We have to do a better job of showing what we do."

"Most people discern Brussels as a mushy collective," agrees Mr. Everts. "European Parliament members should spell out the choices better, and explain what is at stake."

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