Page last updated at 15:36 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 16:36 UK

A journey into the EU elections

As the European parliamentary elections approach, BBC Scotland's David Miller has been crossing the continent to examine some of the big issues in the campaign from a uniquely Scottish perspective.

He has been reporting for Good Morning Scotland from Bucharest, Naples, Paris, Helsinki and Berlin.

WEDNESDAY - HELSINKI

I arrived in Berlin on Monday afternoon, after flying here from the unexpected heat of Helsinki.

Worker at
The downturn is yet to fully hit the economy in Germany

The German capital was also basking in summer sunshine and the Berliners were making the most of the soaring temperatures, after days of unsettled weather.

I have visited this city fairly frequently over the last few years and was aware of the remarkable changes which have been made here in the 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall.

But I wanted to hear at first hand about the latest changes to Berlin's skyline, and learn more about the political landscape too.

And so, on a hot summer's night, I found myself enjoying a tour of Berlin in a style to which I could happily become accustomed.

My guide? Frank Wahlig, a Jimi Hendrix fan, the owner of a classic Mercedes and, more importantly, political correspondent for the German broadcaster, SWR.

As we cruise the streets in Frank's beautiful old Merc, a Hendrix track is playing on the car's stereo. Passing crowded pavement cafes and bars, Frank explains how the east has been transformed - thanks to the strength of the German economy.

"We are now right in the middle of east Berlin, which was utterly ruined 20 years ago," Frank tells me.

"The buildings here have now been renovated with an awful lot of money and an awful lot of skill. That wasn't possible in the days of East Germany."

Harsh reality

I ask if German voters are worried about the current threat to the country's economy, the biggest in Europe.

Frank says: "They say crisis, what crisis? Unemployment hasn't risen, although maybe it will in the next couple of months.

"The people are still buying like mad in the big shopping centres here in the centre of Berlin."

Of course, Germany isn't immune from the economic downturn. But the most serious effects of the financial crisis have yet to be felt here. The next day, I visit the Berlin School of Economics and Law to hear from Professor Hans Slonka.

Professor Slonka tells me Germany has to face up to the harsh reality that the next 12 to 18 months will be tough.

He says: "In 2007, the financial crisis started. In 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed. In 2009, the German economy is affected and I think unemployment will go up. Maybe next year, people will feel the effects much more."

The German government's handling of Europe's biggest economy is certainly under intense scrutiny. This year's general election, due in September, will give voters an opportunity to pass judgement on Angela Merkel's performance at the helm.

It's fortunate for Mrs Merkel that Professor Slonka and most other analysts don't expect the worst effects of the global downturn to hit Germany before 2010.

At a Berlin job centre, I find that the young people who come here searching for work have mixed opinions on the state of the German economy and the impact the downturn will have on the European elections.

One young woman, a recent graduate, tells me the elections have to be about much more than the economy. Protecting the environment, she says, must be seen as a priority by all political parties.

She tells me: "I think it's very important that you consider the economy. But for me, it's much more important to consider ecological issues in the campaign. Sure, the economy is important, but you have to look at the bigger environmental picture."

Apparently, Germans these days ask about a car's CO2 emissions before they ask how much it costs

It's certainly true that here in Germany, and, to a greater or lesser extent, across most northern European countries, the environment is one of a handful of issues, excluding purely national politics, which voters say will determine who they support in this week's elections.

On a visit to a local car dealership, I stumble across further evidence that the environment is a key issue for many Germans.

I've come here to talk about how the economic downturn is affecting the country's car industry, with consumers turning their attentions to smaller, more fuel efficient models.

The staff here tell me that's a trend which is expected to continue as the economy weakens. But they also tell me something which, for a Scot, comes as something of a surprise.

Apparently, Germans these days ask about a car's CO2 emissions before they ask how much it costs.

One salesman laughs as I react with shock. Unwittingly, I am reinforcing the widely-held German view that while Scots are friendly, hospitable and trustworthy, they are also, well, let's just say a bit tight.

So that's something else I have learned on this trip.

Among other things, I have also learned that the Italians consider it vulgar to order a cappuccino after 1130 and that it's rude to ask a Finn how many reindeer he owns.

Of course, there's been the important stuff too. Good Morning Scotland's listeners have heard from Bucharest about the role Romania, one of the European Union's newest members, will play in these elections.

They've also heard from Naples about how the issues of immigration and integration are among the most incendiary in Italian politics.

Then, from Paris, they heard French voters talk about their hopes and fears for the future of the European Union.

In Helsinki, we asked if Scotland could learn from Finland, a country with roughly the same population as Scotland, which enjoys a seat at the top table of European politics.

And now, from Berlin we have heard how the economy and the environment are two of the key issues here in Germany.

I started writing this final instalment in the taxi on my way to the airport following my last live broadcast for Good Morning Scotland.

Right now, I am flying back to Scotland and I will be home in plenty of time to make sure I can cast my vote on Thursday.

I hope that over the last two weeks we have given you plenty to think about as you make your way to the polling station tomorrow.

But, for the sake of European democracy, it's probably best if you forget all about the reindeer and cappuccinos.

MONDAY - HELSINKI

Finland and Scotland have a lot in common. The populations of the two countries are roughly the same, at about five million.

They are both on the periphery of the European Union, and both have complicated historical relationships with their bigger neighbours.

Here's my favourite similarity though - they have both been enjoying wonderful weather recently, against the odds.

And so, I found myself in the sunshine walking through Helsinki's popular waterfront market, speaking to shoppers and stall owners about the European elections.

Flag of Finland
Finland sits at the top table of European politics

It was lunchtime, and I stopped at a food stall run by a young man called Jethro. He explained to me that his speciality was a form of fried whitebait, known here as "wise fish".

They come from a lake which straddles the border between Finland and Russia. They are considered "wise" because they are smart enough to stay on the Finnish side of the border.

Jethro's story hints at Finland's sometimes tricky relationship with its eastern neighbour and former ruler.

I ask him if tensions remain. "No, no, those days are gone", he tells me.

For now, relations are good but the Finns are keeping a close eye on the activities of Russian individuals and companies buying up land here.

The country appears reluctant to join Nato for fear of antagonising Moscow at a time when there is, in any case, no military threat from Russia.

In any case, Finland's real rivalry is with another neighbour and former ruler, Sweden.

Finland's decision to join the EU in 1995 allows it to sit beside Sweden at the top table of European politics. Finns seem to find this particularly satisfying.

We decided to test public opinion here in Finland by speaking to customers at a traditional wood-fired Finnish sauna

As the journalist and author, James Proctor, who's also the editor of the Rough Guide to Finland tells me: "It allows the Finns to say to Sweden, look at us, we're big boys and as good as you".

Finland's experiences in the European Union are especially interesting from a Scottish perspective because they highlight the advantages, and difficulties, which independence could bring.

On the plus side, there's that coveted seat at the top table. On the other hand, the difficulty of making your voice heard.

After this week's elections, Finland will have 13 MEPs, out of a total of 736. To make your own comparisons, it's worth remembering that Scotland will have six MEPS, while the UK as a whole will have 72.

Clearly then, Finland has to shout very loudly to get its point across in Brussels. Or does it?

Aareta Saytenen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs believes the strength of the argument often counts for more than the size of the country making it.

He tells me: "Even though the number of Finnish MEPs is only 13 in an assembly of over 700, the weight of arguments and the cohesive culture of the European Parliament makes numbers less relevant than in a national assembly.

Helsinki
Some Helsinki locals fear being told what to do by bigger countries

"One could say that being present where decisions are made gives us the chance to articulate opinions which, if they're reasonable, are often taken into account in European decision making."

On this morning's edition of Good Morning Scotland, we decided to test public opinion here in Finland by speaking to customers at a traditional wood-fired Finnish sauna.

As the logs crackled, the water hissed on the hot stones and the temperature rose, near naked customers spoke of feeling "disconnected" from Brussels, confused by the complexity of EU politics, and a fear of being told what to do by Britain, France and Germany.

Finland is a proud nation which had to wait a long time for independence and there seems to be a genuine reluctance here to hand over too much power to Brussels and Strasbourg.

The big issues here are fairly predictable. There's the economy, of course. The issue of making the EU work to Finland's advantage and also traditional Nordic concerns such as social justice and the environment.

Finland has its eye on the renewable energy sector too and looks set to be one of Scotland's competitors in that field, given the Scottish Government's determination to make Scotland a world leader in the renewables sector.

Scottish aspirations

So, there are a lot of similarities. But, of course, there are profound differences too.

Professor John Peterson, Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, concedes that Finland is interesting from a Scottish perspective, but he also sounds this warning:

"Finland is a very productive and very constructive member of the EU. That's something which an independent Scotland should aspire to becoming.

"The European Union protects the interests of small states. There is always some provision for equal representation for all the political units.

"But would Scotland be more powerful, better able to defend its interests as a member of the European Union in its own right? That's a very open question."

It's an interesting question too. How you answer it will probably depend on your own political perspective on Scottish independence.

FRIDAY - PARIS

A busy fairground isn't the most obvious place to attempt to judge the mood of the people of France ahead of the European elections.

But you may remember that I promised I would do my best to ensure our journey across Europe wouldn't be dull.

So, true to my word, I found myself at the Foire du Trone, amongst the dodgems and candy floss stalls.

A quick catch up on the story so far for new readers.

The Eiffel Tower is illuminated in blue with gold stars, representing the EU flag
The Eiffel Tower is illuminated to represent the EU flag

We have already learned that interest in the European elections is low.

Paradoxically, turnout has steadily fallen over the years as the powers of the European Parliament have increased.

Now, the people I spoke to at the fair may have been feeling slightly dizzy as they stepped off the fairground rides and more importantly, I can't pretend that my straw poll was scientific.

But it was remarkable just how many of them were enthusiastic Europeans.

In fact, I only found one man who seemed to be a diehard Euro-sceptic.

He muttered something unrepeatable about subsidies for milk producers as he hurried off.

There's no doubt that France has invested heavily in the European project over many years.

National debate

That investment has been political, financial and also emotional.

Perhaps that explains why politicians and voters here appear to be using this election as an opportunity to pause and reflect on the future direction the European Union should take.

That's not to say that support for the concept of a united Europe is falling.

But a national debate is under way about what kind of a united Europe people actually want.

European Union expansion, and in particular Turkey's application to join up, tends to arouse the strongest feelings.

The French government is widely regarded as one of the principal opponents of Turkish membership.

The politicians may not say it publicly, but the large Turkish community in Paris is growing increasingly frustrated and suspicious of French motives.

The degree of future political and social integration promoted by the mainstream political parties here is remarkable

During a visit to a Turkish community centre, I watched and listened as the French immigration minister Eric Besson tried to justify his government's position on Turkish membership - a policy he has not always supported himself.

Mr Besson was left in no doubt about the strength of feeling in the Turkish community.

But, in reality, he knows the French government's policy is popular with voters and, as a result, is unlikely to change.

The French vision for Europe is of a union made up of member states which become increasingly integrated.

That's very different from the more pragmatic approach taken by successive British governments.

As a result, the French tend to set the bar high when deciding who should or should not be allowed to join up.

The degree of future political and social integration promoted by the mainstream political parties here is remarkable.

It was fascinating for me to hear political campaigners on the streets openly championing a European defence force and a pan-European healthcare system.

Mid-term report

I have been on the road for a week now, but I am guessing none of the parties campaigning back home has suddenly started pushing either of those two policies on the doorsteps.

It seems that French voters are more focussed on what these elections are, supposed to be about - the future of Europe.

That position is in stark contrast with most of the EU, where European elections tend to be used as an opportunity for the electorate to give a mid-term report on the performance of their own national governments.

Mind you, many voters here will still use the election to give a thumbs up or, more likely, a thumbs down to President Sarkozy.

The French may be more enthusiastic Europeans than most of the rest of us but they still can't resist the chance to take a pop at the man in charge.

Perhaps we have more in common than I thought.

WEDNESDAY - NAPLES

Europe is getting smaller. Or at least, it seems that way. Our governments co-operate more closely than ever before. Travel between the EU's member states has become easier, cheaper and quicker.

Naples
Immigration is a contentious issue in the city of Naples

Some commentators even argue that we're all becoming "better" Europeans. I'm not exactly sure what, if anything, that means, although it sounds like a step in the right direction. Doesn't it?

But here's a strange thing. If we're all starting to think like good Europeans, act like good Europeans and, perhaps, even vote like good Europeans, why haven't pan-European issues emerged in the election campaign?

I'm talking about the kind of issues which concern all of us, in every one of the 27 member states. Concerns which would unite the massive electorate entitled to vote next week.

To be fair, I can think of two. That's not many though. The first one is easy. The economy is dominating political debate across Europe. We're all worried about that and understandably so.

Immigration theme

Then there's immigration. It's playing an especially large part in political debate here in Italy. That's why I have come to Naples. This old port city has some fascinating stories to tell on the subject of immigration, integration and assimilation.

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has been in town too. I caught up with him as he arrived at one of the posh hotels on the waterfront, from where you watch the ships arriving from around the world.

He tells me: "Immigration is not a Sicilian issue, it's not a Maltese issue, it's a European issue. We have to persuade citizens that Europe can do something good for the daily life of everyone.

"Immigration is seen as one of the first and, probably, most important concerns but if Europe doesn't understand that it is, indeed, a problem then people won't go to vote and will protest against Europe."

Italian politicians are sounding increasingly hard-line on the issue of immigration and there's a good reason for that.

It's an apparently popular position and a vote-winner too. The Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, certainly seems to think so. He recently spoke of his desire to ensure Italy didn't become a multi-ethnic nation.

Every family living in this camp has had two or three generations which have been born in Italy
Vicenzo Esposito
Project worker

Mr Berlusconi's words, and those of some of his rivals, are causing growing concern amongst ethnic minorities.

I wanted to hear from one of those groups myself - the Roma gypsies who live in camps on the outskirts of many of Italy's biggest cities.

Vicenzo Esposito is a project worker with Opera Nomadi, an organisation which provides support to the Roma people.

He drives me in his battered old Volkswagen, through the tough peripheral housing estates controlled by the local mafia. We arrive at a makeshift campsite where whole families live beneath a motorway flyover. They have electricity but it is stolen from overhead cables on a nearby railway line.

As we walk through the camp, traffic roars overhead. Vicenzo tells me: "Here there are living about 800 persons, and most of them are underage. A large part of the underage population should be at school."

The Roma have been pushed to the very edge of the city and, you could argue, the edge of Italian society too.

Vicenzo says: "Every family living in this camp has had two or three generations which have been born in Italy. But our government, because of a very old and, I think, racist law, stops them from becoming Italian because they were not born to Italian parents."

Political crossfire

Daniella Jovanovic came to the camp with her parents when she was only a child. She arrived here from Serbia 16 years ago. Daniella has a university degree but no passport, no citizenship, no means of escape.

"Look at the conditions; you can see it's very difficult to live here. We don't have water, we don't have our own electricity, the children don't go to school," Daniella explains.

"The government doesn't care about us and doesn't do anything to help us. Not all Italians are racists, a lot of them have sympathy for us but nowadays more people seem to see us differently. They think we are all thieves and robbers."

In my radio report on Good Morning Scotland today, I explained that the Roma were finding themselves caught in the political crossfire in this election campaign.

I have just learned that a Roma Gypsy was shot on a street here in the centre of Naples last night.

At this stage, it appears to have been a case of mistaken identity and the local mafia is being blamed.

But carefully planned vigilante attacks on Roma are not unknown.

There are worries here that further violence between different communities is a real possibility.

If that happens, Italy's politicians can expect their vote-winning election speeches to come under renewed scrutiny.

SATURDAY - BUCHAREST

Twenty years ago, Romania was a communist dictatorship.

International travel was virtually impossible for anyone other than the political elite and top sports stars.

The street lamps had no light bulbs. And if you wanted to enjoy a glass of Scotch whisky, you had to buy it on the black market.

Palace of the Parliament
Palace of the Parliament was designed and built by the Ceausescu regime

Today, Romania is one the newest members of the European Union and a member of NATO too. The flags of Romania, the EU and NATO fly from every public building.

The pace of political change has been dizzying but there's been an economic and social revolution too.

The collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime in December 1989 led to a period of unprecedented turmoil and opportunity, as Romania raced to embrace the free market and, now, the single market too.

Florin Talpes is typical of the new generation of Romanian business leaders who has exploited those opportunities to the full.

It's been a long, hard slog but today his software company employs hundreds of staff around the world.

Sitting in his offices in a gleaming tower block on the northern outskirts of Bucharest, Mr Talpes tells me Romania has used its scientific and technical expertise, built up during the communist era, to develop new products and services which are being sold across the European Union.

Western-style prosperity may have become a reality for many in Bucharest but for the peasants living in villages beyond the city limits, life has changed very little

He says: "Hi-tech is one of the cards which Romania will play. That's because we have very strong skills, a very strong education system, a very strong research school. All of these joined together are a very good bet."

Romanian companies may be enjoying access to the single market, but a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Minutes after leaving Mr Talpes at his office building, I see a goat herd carefully guiding her animals along a dual carriageway, past garages selling luxury cars.

This is a country of stark contrasts.

Western-style prosperity may have become a reality for many in Bucharest but for the peasants living in villages beyond the city limits, life has changed very little.

I visited one of those villages and heard from local people about what they wanted the European Union to do for them.

As they tended their fields by hand, they spoke of their ambitions. Asphalt for the roads. New tools. Perhaps even a tractor.

Social change

The European Union has agreed to pour billions into Romania. The money is to be spent improving the country's poor infrastructure and helping to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty.

But critics say bureaucracy and corruption have slowed the flow of EU aid to a trickle.

There are fears the European cash may be frozen entirely until the Romanian government puts its house in order.

Membership of the European Union has meant more than political and economic change for the people of this country. It has brought social change too.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a couple of hundred people have gathered on a wide boulevard close to Ceau?escu's Palace, still seen here as a symbol of his oppressive regime.

The crowd has gathered to take part in Bucharest's annual gay pride march. The streets have been closed, riot police are on standby. Water cannon are parked a short distance away.

In the old days, the marchers would have been arrested and jailed. Today, the police are here to protect them in case of attack by counter-demonstrators.

Changed times indeed.

Gay pride march, Bucharest
A crowd gathers for Bucharest's annual gay pride march

In the crowd, I spot a well-known face. It's Michael Cashman, once an EastEnders actor, now an MEP and an outspoken advocate of gay rights.

He tells me Romania's membership of the EU must be about much more than access to the single market.

"When you join the European Union, it's not just a market. It's a market with a whole set of social values. Top of that agenda is equality, fairness and justice."

There seems little doubt that Romania's membership of the European Union has brought profound changes to this country. Many of those changes have been popular, some less so.

Interest in the European elections is higher here than in other member states.

Some analysts expect that to change as the novelty wears off and Romanians grow tired of European politics.

I'm not so sure. Here's an alternative theory.

Perhaps those who've had to fight for their democratic rights simply value them more highly than those of us who were lucky enough to be born with the right to vote.

That might be worth thinking about on 4 June.

THE JOURNEY AHEAD

Excited about the European elections? It's a fairly safe bet to assume your answer to that question was "no".

And it's an equally safe bet to assume that you are firmly in the majority - pollsters across the European Union report that levels of apathy are high and the turnout between 4 and 7 June is expected to be low. In fact, the turnout could be the lowest ever.

It's understandable and predictable. Politicians at Holyrood and Westminster may worry about how to "connect" with voters. But for their counterparts in Brussels and Strasbourg, the challenges are even greater.

David Miller
David Miller is travelling across mainland Europe

It seems that we know we should be interested in European politics. But we aren't. It's a bit like eating spinach or flossing your teeth.

The latest Eurobarometer survey suggests 53% of EU citizens are "somewhat" or "very" disinterested in the elections. Worse still, only 34%t told the pollsters they would probably vote.

Professor John Peterson is Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

He puts it like this: "I have heard it said that an American presidential election is like a world cup final.

A British general election is like an FA cup final, and a European Parliament election is like a Tuesday night kick around in the park."

Ouch.

But make no mistake. The European elections are a little more complicated than deciding whose jumpers to use to mark out the goals.

About 375 million people across the 27 member states are eligible to vote. They'll elect 736 MEPs who will be chosen from about 9,000 candidates.

Perhaps those big numbers help explain why voters may feel "disconnected" from their elected representatives in Brussels.

Prof Peterson says: "It's the world's only multi-national, multi-lingual, directly-elected parliament.

It's very hard to explain to people exactly what MEPs do, how their vote actually translates into a change in Europe in terms of political power."

I'm sure Professor Peterson is right, but I am going to give it a go. First stop, Romania.

Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride. But I promise I'll be doing my best to make sure this journey is anything but boring.

Good Morning Scotland is broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, weekdays from 0600 to 0900 BST.



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