British, Dutch lead the way in EU vote

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The European Parliament elections officially began this morning as British and Dutch voters hit the ballot box first in a poll which is expected to reflect broad public concerns over governments’ handling of the global economic slowdown.

Past European Parliament elections have been blighted by low turnout, with experts expecting an even further slump this time compared with 2004, when only 45.5% of voters went to the polls. 

“I understand that people can feel tired of politics,” Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said on Wednesday. 

“We often hear about a democratic deficit in the EU […] One cannot complain of the EU being undemocratic and at the same time refuse to go to the polls,” he said. 

Dutch to lean right 

Dutch turnout for the vote is expected to be extremely low, with a recent TNS poll reporting that only 30% of Dutch voters plan to participate in the election. At the 2004 European elections, 39% of the Dutch electorate cast their ballot, with just 30% voting in 1999. 

Some 13 million Dutch and other European voters go to the polls in the Netherlands today to elect 25 members of the European Parliament. Despite calls to keep the results of the Dutch ballot secret until Sunday, as is legally required, exit polls will be published shortly after the polls close at 9pm. 

Geert Wilders’s anti-Islamic Freedom Party (PVV) could very well outperform the Christian Democrats of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, according to recent opinion polls. The Dutch appetite for fringe parties was revealed in research conducted by 21minuten.nl, which reported that 54% of Dutch citizens would favour more restrictions on workers from other EU countries. 

Yesterday (3 June), some 15,000 school pupils in 140 schools took part in mock elections to the EU assembly. The PVV emerged as the winner with 19.2% of the vote, followed by Labour on 18.6%, the right-wing Liberals and the Christian Democrats. 

Lisbon Treaty rears its head 

For British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the election will be a test of his leadership, and a bad performance by his ruling Labour Party will increase pressure on him to quit. 

The European and local elections have been completely overshadowed by a parliamentary expenses scandal that has rocked the major parties (EURACTIV 03/06/09). Opposition leaders have openly urged voters to use the election to express their discontent with Brown’s government. 

Philip Whyte, a political expert at the Centre for European Reform in London, said that one of the “big winners” from the scandal would be the UK Independence Party (UKIP), referring to the main British Eurosceptic party. 

David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, tabled a bill in the UK parliament on Tuesday that would allow a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty to take place in the autumn. Although the bill is unlikely to pass, it signals the main opposition party’s increasingly Eurosceptic stance ahead of today’s election. 

Voter discontent 

The vote will be keenly watched in Germany to assess the mood ahead of national elections in September, while analysts say French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservatives could lose votes to the far-right. 

The French president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement last weekend urging voters to cast their ballot (EURACTIV 02/06/09). Analysts suggest that the main German parties are treating this week’s vote as a warm-up for September’s national election, something Merkel strongly rebuffs. 

In Ireland, the governing Fianna Fáil party is expected to suffer setbacks, but it is not clear how well the Libertas party, which opposes the Lisbon Treaty, will fare. 

A higher turnout is expected in Ireland this time around, with voters furious at the drastic downturn in the once much-celebrated Irish booming economy. The country’s GDP is expected to shrink by over 11% from 2008 through 2010, according to figures released by the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. 

The treaty, on which Ireland holds a referendum in the autumn, is intended to streamline decision-making in the EU and would give the Parliament more powers in setting legislation. 

Unemployment in the 16 countries sharing the euro currency rose to 9.2% – a 10-year high – in April, and joint European efforts to tackle joblessness have had limited success. Some EU leaders fear rising poverty could trigger a social crisis. 

(EURACTIV with Reuters.

More than 375 million people are eligible to take part in four days of voting ending on Sunday, but opinion polls suggest that less than half the electorate will vote. 

Few citizens have much interest in European Parliament, despite the fact that it shapes the vast majority of national laws, endorses the EU executive and budget, and will gain power under the EU's Lisbon Treaty. 

The polls open in the Netherlands and the UK today, with the last votes being cast on 7 June. The results will be announced late on the final day of the elections (7 June).

EURACTIV will report as events unfold on Sunday evening. 

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