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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
Shell-shocked Brussels seeks apathy antidote
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online, Brussels

"A wake-up call" is the way the current President of the European Parliament Pat Cox described this week's election results; the Dutch used the word "disaster".

A TV screen at the EU parliament in Brussels
The disappointing turnout figures have spread gloom in Brussels
But working out what went wrong is now crucial to working out how to put it right.

Officials labelled the turnout "pathetically low" in the new states, as ministers warned the political credibility of the whole EU was now at stake.

The election simply left most voters cold from Portugal to Poland. Where they did vote, most people chose to punish their governments or to promote Eurosceptic parties.

Certainly the elections were a shock for the political elite across Europe in the wake of the recent enlargement which they thought would provide renewed vitality for the European project.

One element which explains this stinging rebuke is a lack of understanding on voters' part about the work of Parliament, says Jacki Davis, editor of E!Sharp magazine, which aims to demystify the EU.

National leaders pay only lip service to Europe and tend to do very little. There is a huge problem of disconnect
Alasdair Murray
Centre for European Reform
"Most people in the old EU states don't know what Parliament does; we can't blame the people in the new member states for knowing even less," she told BBC News Online.

"The image of Parliament is one of a talking shop and there is also the scandal of the (expenses) gravy train. People pick up all the negatives."

She believes the low turnout - down to just 17% in Slovakia - can also be partly explained by voter fatigue. People in many of the new states were asked to vote in referendums ahead of accession - which they did in larger numbers - but did not then engage again with a second round of voting.

The key, Ms Davis says, is for "governments to stop talking about the EU in terms of battle".

All governments speak that sort of language, simply to pander to political opinion and blame Brussels for things that go wrong, she says.

National distractions

Low turnout is also "a consequence of the fact that there was very little European content in the campaign and that the election was fought on national domestic issues," says John Palmer, director of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre think-tank.

This means people feel the way they vote won't make much difference.

Governments and parties must start work at once to change the impression, he warns.

"It will take till the next elections for parties to put clear alternatives forward. Parties need to work out what their strategies are," he says.

Selling Europe

For Alasdair Murray of the Centre for European Reform, it is also about politicians working harder to sell the European idea.

"National leaders pay only lip service to Europe and tend to do very little," he says.

"There is a huge problem of disconnect. Hard work is needed and the onus is on MEPs to sell themselves."

Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi casts his vote in a school in Marsacala
Malta is the new EU's star pupil when it comes to turnout
But in doing so, MEPs need the support of their own parties, who often grab the limelight away from them at the time of elections, he says.

Mr Murray also cites the reform of travel expenses as one way of changing the image of MEPs as freeloaders.

In this, they also need the help of the media, European politicians argued last night.

But on the question of whether the media is to blame for the lack of understanding of what the EU does, Mr Murray says: "A bad workman blames his tools. The media is still very broadly pro-European, except in the UK where the media has its own agenda. Otherwise it is not a problem."

Mediterranean eagerness

One place where low turnout did not seem that much of an issue were the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus - alone in the new members states for bucking the trend of apathy.

But in Cyprus voting is compulsory.

This leaves Malta - the new union's smallest member-state - as the place where the voluntary turnout was the highest - about 82%, which fell short of that reached in national elections.

Observers explained this apparent political keenness by the island's strong voting tradition and perhaps the joy of being part of a larger political and economic group.

"This election is making us Maltese realise that we will no longer feel small because of our land mass," voter Joe Abela, a civil servant, told the Associated Press.

"Now our representatives will be involved in the decisions taken by 25 member states."

Chart showing turnout in the 25 EU states

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"EU officials were disappointed with the turnout"

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