Voters in Britain and the Netherlands have kicked off four days of balloting across the European Union to elect members of the European Parliament. The biggest cross-border election in history is expected to be marked by voter apathy and a rise in the fortunes of parties hostile to the European Union.
Nearly 350 million Europeans are eligible to vote for the 732-member parliament, but turnout is not expected to reach much more than 50 percent.
That is because most voters show little passion for European affairs, and indeed, know little about the European Parliament and what it does.
In Brussels' European quarter, where the EU institutions are based, people on the street were asked if they knew who represents them in the European Parliament.
Giovanni from Florence shrugged at the question.
Giovanni: I do not have [an] idea.
Wilkison: What about Jan from Utrecht?
Giovanni: Ummm. No.
Wilkison: And Eberhard from Dortmund? Does he know who his representative is?
Giovanni: You mean the actual persons? Name of people? No.
The European Parliament has been struggling for recognition for years. In the best of cases, it is regarded as a talking shop. In the worst, as a gravy train where members help themselves to generous expenses.
Dermot Scott, a Parliament official, says even insiders agree that the expenses system has to be cleaned up.
"People exploit an existing system which is very generous, and they do so within - almost entirely, as far as I can see - within the rules," he said. "The rules need to be changed. We all agree to that."
Mr. Scott also says that the Parliament's reputation is tarnished by the fact that it has homes not only in Brussels, but in Luxembourg and the French city of Strasbourg. However, he says that was established by European law and there is not much that can be done about it.
The parliament over the years has gained more legislative powers, including the right to approve the annual EU budget and influence EU legislation on such matters as trade, the environment, and consumer affairs, but not defense and foreign policy, which remain the purview of member states. Crucially, the assembly cannot propose legislation. That is the prerogative of the European Commission, the EU executive body.
In recent years, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) approved laws cleaning up beaches all over Europe, enacted legislation ensuring compensation for airline passengers who are bumped off flights and limited working hours for European employees.
But Heather Grabbe, at London's Center for European Reform, says national governments like to claim credit for the MEPs' successes.
"When things are going well and they do something that is really popular, then the governments do not bother to mention the fact that it was the MEPs that voted on this issue. They claim it as a success for themselves," she said.
Ms. Grabbe says that, as the Euro-elections are being held at the same time as local elections in many EU countries, no single Europe-wide issue has dominated the campaign.
"Most of the party campaigns that we are seeing at the moment are based on national issues. Many of them have really very little to do with Europe at all," she added.
But some European issues have emerged in particular countries. In France and Germany, conservatives are campaigning against eventual Turkish membership in the European Union. In Britain and Denmark, Euro-skeptical groups are campaigning against a draft EU constitution, saying it will lead to the creation of a European super-state.
European elections tend to be large-scale protest votes on national issues that benefit opposition parties.
Experts do not expect British Prime Minister Tony Blair to fare well at the polls because of his support for the war in Iraq. And Simon Hix, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, says widespread opposition to the Iraq war will probably influence the outcome of the vote in Italy as well.
"In Italy, I think, the Iraq issue is going to play the most, where there is a clear difference between government and opposition, rather like there was in the last Spanish election," he explained.
However, some Italian pollsters say the liberation this week of three Italian hostages in Iraq and the new U.N. resolution on Iraq's transition to self-rule could give a boost to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
France and Germany were the foremost European opponents of the Iraq war, but professor Hix says that is not going to help President Jacques Chirac or Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the European polls.
"Chirac and Schroeder will probably do quite badly in these elections, but not because of Iraq," he noted. "These are midterm contests in these countries. They are both quite unpopular governments."
This is the first Europe-wide election in which the 10 new EU members are taking part. In Poland, the most important of those countries, a backlash against the hardship of preparing for EU membership is boosting the Euro-skeptic Self Defense party, which wants to renegotiate Poland's accession to the bloc.
The only big European country whose government is expected to do well is Spain. There, polls show voters giving Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero support because of the quick way in which he fulfilled a promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq.