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EU: European Elections -- Parliament Enjoying Growing Power But Little Glory (Part 1)

Some 350 million people are eligible to vote in elections for the European Parliament. The polls started in some member states today and run until 13 June. The European Parliament is the democratic arm of the European Union and thus is one of the EU's fundamental institutions. But as RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports in the first of a two-part series, in the 25 years it has been directly elected, the European Parliament has had to struggle to overcome voter apathy and gain public recognition. That is still the case in the present elections, which are the first since the EU expanded by 10 new members on 1 May.

Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Bizarre might be one way of describing certain aspects of the current elections to the European Parliament.

Among the thousands of candidates for the 732 seats are one porn star, two astronauts, a racecar driver, an ice hockey great, Olympic medalists, a supermodel, a firebrand farmer, and any number of other people with little or no political experience -- as well as many candidates hostile to the European Union itself.

Add to that mixture persistent voter apathy, which has seen turnout drop in each of the five elections over the past 25 years. In the last poll, turnout fell to just below 50 percent, and could fall even further this time.

It appears the European Parliament has difficulty in being taken seriously by the European electorate. But why? After all, it is the only democratic arm of the European Union, which now comprises 25 countries from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean.

And it is more powerful than most people seem to realize, with the right to amend or refuse some 65 percent of all legislation in the European Union. That power will grow markedly when the EU's new constitution now under preparation comes into force.

RFE/RL asked Marco Incerti, a senior analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, why the European Parliament has a persistent problem establishing its credentials as a serious legislative chamber.

Incerti calls this the "million-dollar question." He sees two basic issues here.

"The European Parliament is actually dealing with very technical and complex issues. It is deciding about topics which are relevant to the everyday lives of the citizens, but that they, the public, often do not understand. So that it basically becomes difficult for them to be excited about these things," Incerti says.

Incerti is referring to the European Parliament's current powers to amend or veto legislation regarding the EU's huge internal market, including financial regulations, and concerning the environment, transport and food safety. It can also reject the EU's 100 billion euro budget, and sack the EU's Executive Commission. However, none of these important functions makes for sexy media headlines, except for issues concerning the environment and occasionally food safety.

Incerti says the European Parliament's second problem is political -- namely, that the horizons of political parties in EU member states are often limited to their own national borders.

"The political parties in Europe still tend to consider the European elections as a second-rate contest, which means that not many political heavyweights take part in these elections and exert themselves campaigning for them. And also these campaigns are regarded as a sort of mid-term review for the [member states'] governments, so they are focusing on national, domestic issues, rather than on the really European ones," Incerti says.

The result, according to Incerti, is an absurd distortion of the political process. For instance, if a citizen casts a vote on the basis of his or her worries about Czech nuclear power plants, or a similar domestic issue, the deputies they are actually voting in to the European Parliament will not even be dealing with this issue. So the citizen sees no action taken because of his or her vote, and concludes that the European Parliament is ineffective.

Analyst Pal Tamas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences says that, in his country, the main parties willingly go along with this misconception about the role of the European Parliament.

"Between the opposition and the government, you have an ongoing debate about internal issues. I mean, they practically want to have the European parliamentary elections as a sort of referendum for or against the government," Tamas says.

The failure of many mainstream political parties to develop pan-European outlooks and to campaign effectively has produced somewhat of a political vacuum at the European Parliament level, into which extreme groups and offbeat individual candidates often step.

Witness the rise of Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP), which seeks Britain's immediate withdrawal from the EU. Some surveys show the UKIP as taking 19 percent of the British euro-vote, displacing the mainstream Liberal Democrats at third place behind the Labour and Conservative parties.

Philip Tod, a spokesman for the grouping of Liberal parties in the European Parliament, says most of the UKIP's gains would likely come at the cost of the Conservatives, whom he says have toyed too long with equivocal policies.

"The publicity the UKIP has received has certainly crystallized the choice people have, and it has put the [British] Conservative Party in a difficult position, because they are reaping the consequences of their years of Euroskepticism. Ordinary people are now saying that if the European Union is so bad, maybe we should leave it. And so the Conservatives are put in a very weak position, and so they are suffering, because their position is being exposed for the hypocrisy that it is. [After all,] you cannot be half-pregnant. You cannot be half in the European Union and half out. You are either in or out," Tod says.

In Poland, where the government is in disarray, there is an even more marked situation on the political fringe. A strongly anti-EU rural group called Self-Defense is tipped to take at least 17 percent of the vote. The movement is led by Andrzej Lepper, who is famed for organizing sometimes violent roadblocks to protest cheap food imports. Lepper, a former communist, has been quoted as praising Adolf Hitler's early policies.

Voting for the European Parliament takes place today in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands; tomorrow in the Czech Republic and Ireland; on 12 June in Latvia and Malta; and on 13 June in all other EU states.

(Part 2 looks at the hot issue of deputies' "perks," and how the new Eastern European members of the EU are adapting to their first European elections.)