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News Monday, 14 June, 1999, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
UK turnout: Apathy or ignorance?
polling station
People in the UK "don't relate" to the European Parliament
The European Union is currently appealing to Internet users to come up with a slogan for the union.

It already has its own flag and anthem (an adaptation of final movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony) - and is now looking for a snappy little phrase to encapsulate its work and mission.

If this week's European elections are anything to go by, however, competition entries from the UK may be a bit thin on the ground.

Anti-Euro lobbyists may have a few choice phrases to pass on to the bods in Brussels.

But any other suggestions might run something along the lines of "Europe - What does it do?" or indeed "MEPs - Who the hell are they?".

The UK's Conservative commissioner Sir Leon Brittan has already gone on the record to register his frustration at the "apathy" of British voters.

The UK turnout - the lowest in the union at just 23.3% - also followed the pan-European downward trend since the last elections in 1994, when 36% of UK voters made it to the polling stations.

This year, all countries but Ireland have seen fewer people putting a cross on ballot slips.

"What people don't realise is they have failed to vote for people who have the power to change their lives," said Mr Brittan.

The power that the European Parliament has the potential to wield has grown considerably over the years, particularly since the implementation of the Amsterdam Treaty last month.

Euro-MPs now have a say equal to that of European Commissioners in matters including education, health and the environment.

Power of veto

They also have the sometimes crucial power of veto, which they can use to brow-beat the Council of Ministers into accepting amendments they have made to policy proposals.

EU directorates have an immediate and direct effect on every single one of the EU's 373 million citizens - including everyone in the UK.

But commentators say there is more than general disinterest at play in the UK's low turnout.

A lack of campaigning "characterised" the European elections
A MORI poll conducted before the election on Attitudes to Europe found that less than 10% of voters knew who their MEP was.

In comparison, 50% of UK voters would recognise their Westminster MP.

MORI's head of political research Simon Atkinson said the number of people who know what their MEP does is even fewer.

He said: "Even the best-known MEP, Pauline Green [Leader of the Group of the Party of European Socialists] is less well known than members of the UK shadow cabinet.

"One of the problems is that all we hear about MEPs in the media is negative.

"The European Parliament is seen as something of a gravy train, and frankly, something which is at some level, corrupt.

'Makes no difference'

"There's a feeling that whether you vote in European elections or not makes no difference."

He said that whenever MORI talked to people about Europe, the strong message it received was that people knew very little about the organisation of the union, and how it affected their lives.

He said: "We have experienced voters saying to us that they don't think they have ever had an opportunity to vote in European elections, whereas the reality is that we have had European elections for the past 25 years."

He added that "election fatigue" after last month's local elections had also played a part in the low attendance rate.

Professor of European Studies at Aston University, Anne Stevens, said that UK voters had no frame of reference in which to fit the European Parliament, and so it was very difficult for them to relate to the organisation.

She said the responsibility for raising awareness of the duties and function of the European Parliament lies with political parties - and she felt that there was still confusion over the differences between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers.

And she said that the media - including TV, radio and newspapers - could also do a better job of communicating the complicated issues debated by the European Parliament.

"People are denying themselves the right to democracy, but in some respects it is easy to see why they do not vote.

"I was incredibly surprised when I went to vote that there were no helpers from the different parties on hand at the polling station.

"In fact, lack of campaigning is something which has characterised these elections in the UK. The parties have to grasp the nettle and go out into the various constituencies and talk to people about what Europe means to them.

pauline green
"Best-know" MEP: but many do not know who Pauline green is
"You can't compare the British turn-out with places like Belgium where voting is compulsory, but what you can do is try to inform as many people as possible what is being done in their name in Strasbourg."

She added: "The media hasn't really got to grips with communicating the very complicated and complex things which happen in Europe, which just compounds people's general misunderstanding.

"We go from the tabloid's scare reporting of straight bananas through to the jargon-laden language of some of the high brow media. It's a turn-off and people lose interest."

But Mr Atkison said the low turnout was not necessarily a terrible thing.

He said: "I do not interpret it as an expression of dissatisfaction by the people of the UK.

"It may be that people are happy with the way things are being run and see no real need to vote. People - as we have seen with the UKIP vote - are more likely to vote if they are unhappy with a situation."

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