'Euro-fatigue' threatens turnout in continental vote

The four-day election for a 25-nation European Parliament begins Thursday. Polls indicate that voter turnout may be low.

Ask a European about the moment of history taking place across the Continent this week, and you get a puzzled response. The D-Day anniversary? A gay marriage in France? The start of the Euro 2004 soccer championships?

Actually it's the biggest transnational election ever, a four-day democratic marathon starting Thursday in which 350 million people from Lisbon to Lapland, Ljubljana to Limerick are eligible to vote for a 25-nation Parliament.

It may sound impressive, but Europeans are underwhelmed. Polls show that turnout is likely to be even more dismal than the record low 49 percent five years ago. Indeed, the only parties anticipating the vote with any relish are those who advocate liquidating the EU altogether. Few voters know their candidates, or even what the European Parliament does.

"I will vote, but most people in Denmark don't even know it's on," says Andreas from Copenhagen.

"I don't know who's running or anything about them," says Jane from London.

"I'm voting, but only because in Belgium you have to by law," says Marianne from Beringen.

Analysts ascribe the ennui to two factors. First, there is a kind of Euro-fatigue sweeping the Continent, a weariness with the heady activity of recent years - including a new currency, 10 new members, and a new constitution drafted at great length.

"We need to sell Europe better to the people," says Katinka Barysch, an expert at the London-based Centre for European Reform. "National governments use Brussels as a scapegoat. Citizens think there is this opaque bureaucracy at the heart of Europe making decisions. People have to be reminded of the benefits, that they can travel freely, live and work in different countries, and do business easily in a market of 450 million."

Then there is the Parliament, a 732-seat chamber that has been criticized as a talking shop, a gravy train, and a traveling circus. European lawmakers, or MEPs, enjoy an extravagant blend of expenses and perks, and additional waste is incurred every month when the entire show moves from Brussels to Strasbourg for a week.

Anti-EU MEPs calculate the waste at $1 billion-plus a year. "There is no doubt that the European Parliament has been its own worst enemy," says Nigel Gardner, who is running for Parliament as a British Labour Party candidate. "It has not acted quickly enough to clean up the expenses system or to establish a single home."

Yet contrary to accusations that the Parliament has no power, it has an increasing say in a wide range of policies, particularly concerning the environment and human health. It scrutinizes much of what the executive arm, the European Commission, does, and will later this summer have its say in the appointment of a new commission chief.

Soon, only the most sensitive issues such as tax, foreign, and defense matters will remain beyond its purview. Mr. Gardner says that when voters learn this, they become more engaged. "People don't really know much about how the European Parliament affects their daily lives," he says. "When you tell them, they tend to wake up."

Yet the election is being dominated by issues that have nothing to do with the Parliament's routine business. Some voters, in France and Poland for example, are set to use their ballot to protest the domestic agenda of the government of the day, analysts say. Others, particularly in Britain and Italy, may have the Iraq war uppermost in their minds as they vote.

"All the big parties have difficulties on Europe in many ways," says David Baker, an expert in politics at the University of Warwick, in central England. "There's a conspiracy of not mentioning it. It's a hard one to sell to the electorate. Putting over powerful national [anti-EU] rhetoric is far easier than arguing a complex economic case."

Indeed, the only parties campaigning on overtly European issues are those that promote withdrawal from the EU. From the Junilistan in Sweden to the UK Independence Party (Ukip), from the Self-Defense party of Andrzej Lepper in Poland to disillusioned parties in the Netherlands and Denmark, anti-EU rhetoric is growing. The basic complaint is that the EU juggernaut is unaccountable and insensitive.

"Our message is 'Stop, no more of this,' and it has appealed to an enormous number of people," says Jeffrey Titford, an MEP with Ukip. "[When] it comes to legislation it has to be your own Parliament."

But in order to further their arguments against EU integration, this motley assortment of patriots, ex-Communists, and far-right forces will have to pull together to maximize impact, just as the more moderate political blocs do. Says Gardner: "The irony is if they do wellwhat do they have to do? To fight against the EU they will have to join up with other Europeans."

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