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EU Voters Choose Status Quo, With A Worried Eye On Future

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The estimated 43 percent turnout across Europe was an all-time low

The estimated 43 percent turnout across Europe was an all-time low

BRUSSELS -- Center-right parties have consolidated their gains in European Parliament elections, with a strong protest vote in some countries giving a boost to the opposition and some fringe groups.

But the overall distribution of power among political groups remains largely unchanged.

Responding to the results on behalf of the European Commission, Joaquin Almunia, the commissioner responsible for the economy, declared late on June 7 that the political make-up of the EU has emerged from the vote intact.

"I think the results show that [the European Parliament] will have a similar composition, a similar distribution of political groups, of political relevance of the different political families in Europe," Almunia said.

Center-Right Triumphs

In continental Western Europe, voters appeared content with the status quo even at the height of the economic crisis. In Germany, France, and Italy, incumbent center-right parties comfortably won the polls.

In Spain the conservative Partido Popular, now in opposition, beat the reigning Socialists. The campaign in all of these countries was dominated by fears associated with globalization and enlargement -- central among them immigration and crime.

In the Netherlands, with its relatively large Muslim minority, and Austria, which straddles the EU's approaches to the Balkans, parties of the extreme right capitalized on these fears and took large shares of the vote.

Britain, where a Parliamentary expenses scandal has rocked the political establishment to its roots, the far-right anti-immigration British National Party won its first-ever two seats.

In Eastern Europe, going through only its second European Parliament elections, voters appeared more disoriented. Those in countries worst affected by the economic crisis -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria -- tended to seek to punish their establishment parties.

Overall, the turnout at 43 percent represents another all-time low for the EU since 1979 when the European Parliament was first directly elected.

This mercilessly downward trend underlines the EU's continual failure to capture the hearts and minds of voters.

Record Low Turnout

The official nominally in charge of just that, the European Commission's outgoing vice president for communication strategy, Margot Wallstrom, said the low turnout was "disappointing."

"It must be very disappointing especially to the European Parliament that has invested a lot in creating a campaign that would help to mobilize voters," Wallstrom said.

"I think this is partly a result of the fact that the debate has been very much a domestic one, so in the different member states the national issues have dominated the discussion, and I think that we have to turn it into much more of a European political discussion."

In attempting to achieve this, Wallstrom's successor, like herself, will face two formidable obstacles. First, the European Parliament is not perceived by EU voters to have much power.

Although 80 percent of all national legislation now passes through the European Parliament, it mostly concerns fields like internal market standards, consumer rights, and environmental norms.

Foreign policy, citizenship issues, key immigration policy issues, budgetary policy, and direct taxes -- the true stuff of politics -- remain firmly within the jurisdiction of the EU's 27 national governments.

Secondly, and possibly more ominously for Brussels, the EU lacks a unified political arena. There are 23 official languages, no real EU-wide media, and very little cross-border campaigning.