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News Monday, 14 June, 1999, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Europe's swing to the right
empty poll
The low turnout shows voters do not think much of the parliament
By European Affairs specialist William Horsley

Results coming in from the European Parliament elections show that the Socialists and Social Democrats who used to dominate the parliament have lost a lot of seats, in favour of right-of-centre or conservative parties.

The low voter turnout, of only about 50% overall, is a setback for those who want the European Parliament to play a much bigger role in decision-making for the almost 400 million people living in the European Union.

The European Parliament, which meets in Strasbourg in France as well as in Brussels, is one of the most important institutions of the European Union, together with the Commission which proposes policies, and the Council of Ministers from the 15 governments.

The low election turnout shows that citizens of the EU do not think much of the parliament as an institution.

Punishing the governments

The main surprise has been a sharp fall in support for parties of the centre-left, which lead most of Europe's governments, in favour of the conservatives of what is called the European People's Party (EPP).

schroder
Chancellor Schr¿der's SPD lost out to the Christian Democrats
Michael Shackleton, who works for the European Parliament, explains that first indications suggest a very marked shift away from the socialists.

He says: "One should recall that this parliament has had the Socialist group as the largest group ever since it was established as a directly elected body in 1979, and now it does seem for the first time ... that the Christian Democrats will become the largest group and, if estimations are correct, by rather a substantial margin."

Voters have shown their annoyance at the failures of their own governments in managing national affairs. Germany's Social Democrats under Chancellor Schröder have lost badly to their rivals, the Christian Democrats.

And in Belgium, where a scandal over the contamination of food with cancer-causing agents has led to a ban on the sale of most Belgian meat and dairy products, the centre-left coalition has been defeated in the country's general election.

The poll comes at the same time as the election for seats in the European Parliament.

Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, a Christian Democrat, has resigned following his coalition's election defeat.

But elsewhere the Christian Democrats and Conservatives have succeeded because they are seen as more modern and reform-minded than they were.

'A proper parliament at last'

That is the view of a British Member of the European Parliament, Graham Mather.

dehaene
Mr Dehaene resigned his post following the dioxin scandal
"The old EPP, the old Christian Democrats, were rather Belgian.

"In a way here, there is this atmosphere of cronyism and corruption. Belgium suffers from it as a country as well.

"But we're now seeing that change. We're now becoming much more market orientated and more scrutineers. We're behaving like a proper parliament at last," says Mr Mather.

The European Union has been engaged in big international events lately, including the war over Kosovo and vital negotiations over the world trade system.

But many voters in the European Union still associate the parliament with problems of fraud and mismanagement. Those problems led to the resignation of the Commission only three months ago.

Clampdown

Despite the lack of voter enthusiasm, the Dutch Member of the European Parliament, Lousewies van der Laan, says the parliament has a chance to play a much bigger role within the EU, if it now acts decisively.

"One of the things we need to do is clamp down very hard on anything that even reeks of fraud, or even mismanagement.

"We've got to be very very tough on it. We've got to make sure we communicate a lot better to our voters what we're all about and especially what the differences are between the parties and that there actually is a choice and that we can make a different Europe.

"It's also good that there is a new generation of politicians coming in, so that this image of the national rejects - we call it in Dutch 'an elephant graveyard' - that we get rid of that image as well."

The biggest question of all facing the European Parliament is whether the people of Europe really want it to play a larger part in their lives.

These elections suggest that they don't.

Links to more News stories are at the foot of the page.


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