By David Cowling
Editor, BBC political research unit
Domestic issues have dominated UK elections for the European Parliament.
From the very beginning, Britain's membership of the EU was clouded with accusations of betrayal.
The Conservative manifesto for the 1970 general election acknowledged that if the right terms could be negotiated then "it would be in the long-term interest of the British people" to join the (then) EEC.
However, that same manifesto also stated: "Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less".
And so was born the charge of betrayal - membership without the sanction of the British people through a direct vote.
As a result, the long parliamentary process leading to Britain joining in 1973 provoked bitter political divisions.
In the key vote to approve the negotiated terms for Britain's membership - on 28 October 1971 - some 69 Labour MPs broke their party whip and voted with the Conservative government's recommendation, and another 20 abstained.
At the same time, 39 Conservative MPs voted against their Government's recommendation with two additional abstentions.
Following Labour's defeat in the 1979 general election, Europe became the defining issue between Left and Right within the party.
In 1981, 28 Labour MPs and one Conservative MP defected to form the Social Democratic Party, in large measure motivated by Labour's increasing anti-Europeanism.
In alliance with the Liberal Party they came within 700,000 votes of pushing Labour into third place in the popular vote in the 1983 election.
UK TURNOUT IN EU ELECTIONS
However, by the 1990s, with Labour slowly reconciling itself to Europe, it was the turn of the Conservative Party to seize this particular poisoned chalice and drink deeply from it.
As with Labour, so for them, Europe became the issue which made or broke political careers and more than anything else, defined where you stood within the party.
The 1992-7 Conservative government was almost brought to its knees by a handful of backbench anti-European rebels within its own ranks.
And few would disagree that Kenneth Clarke's failure to win successive Conservative Party leadership elections was due, in large measure, to his uncompromisingly pro-European views.
How, if at all, has this troubled history been reflected in the UK's direct elections to the European Parliament since 1979?
UK turnout in European elections has been consistently among the lowest of any EU country.
To date, turnout has never reached 40% and in 1999 it slumped to 24%. In 2004, it rose to its highest level - 38.5% - but only with the assistance of four English regions where every vote had to be cast by post.
In the four regions with all-postal voting the combined turnout was 43%. In the remaining five English regions where most votes were cast in polling stations, the combined turnout was 37%.
My own conclusion is that these elections have been overwhelmingly influenced by domestic rather than European issues.
The passion and ferocity over EU membership that wrought such havoc among our two main political parties over the past four decades have singularly failed to make any impact on the British electorate.
ISSUES LIKELY TO MATTER AT THE NEXT GENERAL ELECTION
Tax and public services: 13%
Health services: 11%
Law and Order: 10%
Fight against terrorism: 3%
None of these: 2%
Don't know: 3%
Source: ICM/Guardian poll, February 2009
An ICM/Guardian poll, conducted between 20 and 22 February, asked people which of the following issues would be most important in their decision on how to vote at the next general election?
The most popular answer, by some way, was the economy which 35% of those questioned considered most important.
This was followed by tax and public services on 13%, health on 11% and law and order on 10%.
Europe only ranked the 9th most important issue, with only 1% saying it would determine their vote.
Throughout a dozen ICM polls in the 2005 general election campaign, Europe rated between 2-4% as an issue that would influence voting.
In 2001, ICM found EU membership rating 11th in a list of 12 decisive issues in the general election campaign. The issue deemed the least important was the single European currency.
The mixture of proportional voting, low turnout and general voter indifference to Europe tended to increase prospects for the minor parties.
In the 1999 election, two Green and three UKIP MEPs were elected. At the time of the 2004 election both Labour and the Conservatives were unpopular, the Lib Dems were treading water and the SNP were only one year on from their poor performance in the Scottish Parliament elections.
Possibly as a result of that, with the media personality Robert Kilroy Silk spearheading its campaign, UKIP won 12 seats and 2.66 million votes, pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place in terms of total vote share.
In addition, the Greens secured one million votes. In fact, one-third - 33.4% - of all votes cast in Britain in 2004 went to minor parties.
However, as we consider the political landscape of this year's European elections compared with five years ago, we see marked differences.
The Conservatives are currently maintaining double digit leads over Labour. In February 2004, their average monthly share in voting intention polls was 29%. Last month, the comparable figure was 43%.
And the SNP still bask in the good fortune that won them one more seat than Labour in the 2007 elections to the Scottish Parliament.
It seems likely that 2009 may produce a harsher climate for minor parties than was the case five years ago.