EU leaders should heed voters' wake-up call

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 12:00am

The elections that have just been held in 25 nations from Portugal to Poland were supposed to set the seal on a bold new era for the European Union. Instead, the results have demonstrated in the clearest terms the tough challenges that lie ahead.

A majority of the 350 million entitled to vote in polls for the European Parliament chose not to bother. And of those who did, many supported candidates who are opposed to the whole concept of greater political union. The outcome has rightly been described as a wake-up call for European leaders.

The world's largest transnational elections have come at a critical time for the EU. It is still getting to grips with the admission of 10 new members last month, eight of them former communist countries from eastern Europe. Then there are the controversial efforts to introduce a new constitution, which will resume later this week. A confidence boost was needed - but the elections have not delivered it.

Certainly, the polls have - as usual - been influenced by domestic politics as much as European issues. They have, as is usual, been used by voters to pass judgment on their national governments.

Ruling parties that supported the US-led occupation in Iraq - particularly those in Britain and the Netherlands - took a battering. Economic problems and unpopular social reforms led to the French and German ruling parties also suffering electoral woe.

But this protest-vote tendency cannot hide the warning signs for those intent on forging ahead with greater political union. The record low turnout, 45 per cent, shows that the European Parliament continues to be viewed with scepticism by the people who make up the EU nations. Since it was established in 1979, the parliament has been viewed as a toothless talking-shop - and an expensive one at that. In fact, the assembly now wields considerable power over EU legislation and its influence is expected to grow as a result of the move to bring in a new constitution.

This message, however, has not been sufficiently conveyed to the public.

The march of the so-called eurosceptics also cannot be overlooked. These parties, intent on holding back greater integration or even taking their nations out of the EU, made great strides in countries as diverse as Britain, Sweden, and the Czech Republic. They will hold only 10 to 15 per cent of the seats, but this will be sufficient to make them a significant voice.

The day-to-day business of the parliament is likely to be largely unaffected. After all, the moderates at the centre of the political spectrum remain very much in the majority. However, the elections show that any headlong rush towards greater political union would be a mistake.

This may well be the shape of Europe's future, but it will take time. And much more must be done to win over the doubters.