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EU Vote Marked by Apathy, Antipathy to Ruling Parties - 2004-06-14

Europe's voters have delivered a massive vote of no confidence in their governments in four days of balloting for the European Parliament. The Europe-wide contest was marked by widespread apathy and protest votes over issues ranging from involvement in Iraq to high unemployment.

It was billed as the biggest trans-national election in history, held just six weeks after the European Union expanded from 15 to 25 members, with a total population of 450 million.

But the results show that EU citizens feel cut off from pan-European issues and remote EU institutions in Brussels, and that they were in a mood to punish their governments over more domestic concerns.

In what shaped up as a mid-term protest vote across the continent, voters punished British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for backing the U.S.-led war in Iraq, while castigating French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, opponents of the war, for presiding over economic stagnation and trying to impose unpopular social reforms.

The only governments to emerge unscathed from the poll were those of Spain and Greece, both of which were elected earlier this year and are still enjoying a honeymoon period with voters.

Politicians and pundits are focusing on more than just the winners and losers. In the end, the makeup of the new European Parliament will be similar to the old one, with the center-right holding more seats than anyone else, followed by the socialists, the liberals, and the greens. The main concern is the turnout, especially in the eight former communist countries that joined the union on May 1, where it was lower than in the older member states.

More than 150 million eligible voters cast their ballots. But close to 200 million did not bother to do so. And that low turnout, down 5 percent from the last such elections, in 1999, paved the way for Euro-skeptics, populists, and single-issue groups to make big inroads.

Standing in front of the European Parliament in Brussels, former Belgian prime minister Wilfried Martens, the president of the union of European center-right parties, said he felt good about his group's victory, but bemoaned the indifference among voters and the rise of those who do not believe in a more integrated Europe. "After 40 years of activity for the integration of Europe, I am asking myself this night: 'What can I do?'", he said.

Mr. Martens is also asking himself what the rise of Euro-skeptical parties, especially in Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Sweden, will mean for the EU's last-ditch attempt to agree on a proposed constitution at a summit later this week. Even if EU leaders overcome their differences, and experts give them a 50-50 chance of doing so, the document must be submitted to voters in referendums or to national parliaments for approval.

The apathy and skepticism about the European project occur at a time in which the European Parliament, as the only directly elected EU body, is being given increased power. But the paradox of European Parliament elections has consistently been that the more power the parliament gets, the less people vote.