Euro voters rebuke ruling parties

Europe's voters have turned their backs on most serving governments and EU institutions in European Parliament elections.

    Blair took a battering for his pro-Iraq war stance

    Results on Monday showed the vote was

     marked by mass abstentions and

    protest votes on domestic issues.

    As counting in the biggest transnational election in history

    neared a finish, the scale of public alienation highlighted

    challenges facing EU leaders when they meet later this week to

    try to finalise a first constitution for the bloc.

    "Across Europe we have seen sitting governments receive

    significant protest votes against them," British Foreign

    Secretary Jack Straw said before starting a final round of

    pre-summit constitution negotiations in Luxembourg.

    "One clear message is that voters across Europe, including

    in the United Kingdom, want a European Union that works better

    in their interests. That's the purpose of the draft

    constitutional treaty," he said.

    But the huge protest vote against British Prime Minister

    Tony Blair's Labour Party, and gains for Eurosceptics in Poland,

    the Czech Republic and Sweden, raised doubts about whether the

    new charter will ever be ratified.

    Low turnout

    Britain is fighting to preserve national vetoes in core

    areas while Poland, the biggest of 10 new members, is resisting

    a change in the EU voting system that would diminish its power.

    A mere 45.3% of nearly 350 million eligible voters

    bothered to cast ballots in the four-day exercise in

    cross-border democracy, the lowest turnout since direct

    elections for the Strasbourg-based assembly began in 1979.

    The most startling figure was that participation in the EU's

    10 new, mainly ex-communist east European member states was just

    26%. Parliament spokesman David Harley called it a

    "disappointing and pathetically low turnout".

    "Across Europe we have seen sitting governments receive

    significant protest votes against them.

    One clear message is that voters across Europe, including

    in the United Kingdom, want a European Union that works better

    in their interests"

    Jack Straw,
    UK foreign secretary

    The European Commission said the main reason was that the

    European Parliament had too little power, while Estonian Foreign

    Minister Kristiina Ojuland said it showed that neither old nor

    new EU citizens understood the legislature's growing role.

    For some, the low poll could undermine the assembly's

    legitimacy. "Of course I would have appreciated it very much if

    we had a stronger legitimation of parliament," German Foreign

    Minister Joschka Fischer lamented.

    British voters punished Blair for his role in the US-led

    Iraq war and governing parties in France, Germany and Poland for

    economic stagnation, unemployment and painful social reforms.

    Eurosceptics

    Only the recently elected Spanish and Greek governments

    escaped public wrath, amplifying their recent national

    victories, as did Slovakia's centre-right coalition on a pitiful

    17%

    turnout - the lowest in the 25-nation bloc.

    Britain and Poland sent strident new voices of hostility to

    European integration to the EU legislature.

    The UK Independence Party, which won its first three seats

    in 1999, grabbed 12 this time, while opposition parties in

    Poland, including the populist Self Defence and the League of

    Catholic Families, beat the ruling Socialists into fourth place.

    The overall balance in the European Parliament, which has

    growing powers over EU spending, financial regulation, food

    safety and environmental rules, was little changed.

    The centre-right European People's Party was set to remain

    the biggest group with 272 of the 732 seats, the Socialists came

    second with 200, the Liberals third with 67 and the Greens

    fourth with 42.

    Politicians said the Socialists and an augmented Liberal

    group that may be boosted by pro-integration defectors from the

    EPP could form an alliance to dominate the new parliament,

    possibly in a "rainbow coalition" with the Greens.

    Power-sharing

    Liberal leader Graham Watson said he was talking to French

    centrist UDF leader Francois Bayrou, whose 10 deputies may quit

    the EPP, and European Commission President Romano Prodi, whose

    Italian centre-left followers straddle all three groups.

    Polling was marked by apathy 

    "We retain our pivotal role in the balance of power in the

    new house," he said, adding that his aim was "to fight the tired

    scepticism of the right wing".

    However, a return to the traditional power-sharing between

    EPP and Socialists which prevailed until 1999 is also possible.

    Parliament will also have a say in the choice of European

    Commission president by EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday and

    Friday, since it must approve their choice in a vote on 21 July

    .

    A centre-left alliance could improve the chances of Belgian

    Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the front-runner, although he

    faces opposition from Britain, Nordic and east European states.

    There is wide support among EU leaders for Luxembourg Prime

    Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a Christian Democrat triumphally

    re-elected as the EU's longest-serving head of government on Sunday.

    But he has vowed to stay in the 450,000-strong Grand Duchy

    rather than serve 450 million Europeans in the EU's hot seat.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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