Europeans step back from unity

European Parliament elections over the weekend prove 'all politics is

On the face of it, European voters chose a new European Parliament last weekend, renewing the only assembly in the world directly elected across national borders. But the poor turnout, and the way that campaigns in the 15 European Union countries focused on domestic issues, robbed the results of much of their overall meaning.

Rather, the vote highlighted once again how wide the gulf has grown between Europe's achievements - a single market, a single currency - and its citizens, many of whom could not care less.

The European Union may be the biggest economic powerhouse in the world, and the biggest market. But the Continent's political leaders have so far failed to give the union a sense beyond that size, a set of values and an identity that European citizens can get behind.

"Europe lacks a face and it lacks conviction," said French political commentator Dominique Bromberger yesterday, about the election results.

"If people did not go to vote, it is because they are not happy with the way things are being handled in Europe," added Francois Hollande, who headed the French Socialist Party's list of candidates. Only 43 percent of European voters bothered to cast a ballot, a miserably low turnout by European standards, and one that followed a trend: Turnout has fallen at each European election since 63 percent voted in the first such elections in 1979.

The campaigns differed widely from country to country, with the results seen as judgments on national governments. Germany's new Social Democratic leader Gerhard Schrder suffered badly, as did British Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair. Europe's longest-serving premier, Belgium's Jean-Luc Dehaene, resigned yesterday after voters delivered a stinging rebuke of his government's handling of a contaminated-food scandal. Belgium held elections for both national and European Parliaments.

Across the Continent, Social Democratic rulers endured setbacks, with the result that Social Democrats lost control of the European Parliament, dropping from 214 seats to 180, while the center-right Christian Democrats swelled their ranks from 201 to 224 members.

The incoming Parliament will enjoy far more powers than the old one, with the right to amend EU laws, reject treaties with non-EU nations, vote down the EU budget, and turn down nominations to its executive body, the European Commission. Earlier this year, the Parliament forced the resignation of the Commission amid a corruption scandal.

Few Europeans know of these powers, however, and the way in which European institutions function is a mystery to most citizens. A widespread sense that an overbearing EU bureaucracy in Brussels is stifling national identities has fed the growth of several bluntly anti-European parties.

In France, the Euroskeptic conservative leader Charles Pasqua came in second, and in Britain the Conservative Party easily outpolled Labour on the strength of a campaign against adopting the euro single currency in place of the pound. Even in Germany, where the major parties have long agreed on the value of greater European integration, a recent poll found 61 percent of Christian Democrat voters wanting to put national interests above European ones.

But even as Europe-wide bodies take on more power, Europe's political parties continue to think and act locally, failing to keep up with the new reality. "We don't yet have European parties that are anything more than aggregates of national parties," points out John Palmer, director of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think tank.

That, he says, means "voters are not offered alternative visions of the direction Europe should take," feeding confusion and apathy. If the process of political union is not to run even further ahead of public opinion, he warns, "it is extremely urgent" that political parties "strengthen the democratic foundations" of the European edifice.

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