- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

BRUSSELS — Elections for the European Union’s parliament were marked by widespread apathy and protest votes as citizens of the 25 EU nations punished their governments for everything from high unemployment to involvement in Iraq.

Across the continent, voters voiced discontent by casting ballots for opposition and fringe parties. But most of the 350 million EU citizens eligible to vote didn’t bother: Turnout was 45.5 percent.

Of the 10 nations that joined the European Union in May, the eight from the former Soviet bloc showed particularly little appetite for the vote, with the worst turnout — less than 20 percent — in Slovakia. The biggest newcomer by far, Poland, was hardly better at 21 percent.

European Parliament spokesman David Harley called it “a disappointing and indeed pathetically low turnout.”

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, arriving at a meeting of his EU counterparts in Luxembourg, said he, too, was disappointed, “but it’s the way it is.”

Voters punished leaders in Britain, the Netherlands and to some degree Italy for getting involved in Iraq, but also turned their ire on German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, Europe’s leading opponents of the war.

The outcome highlighted anxieties about the expanding union, with parties opposed to EU membership gaining ground in Britain, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Overall, center-right parties won, with the European People’s Party taking 274 seats in the 732-member EU assembly and retaining its plurality.

The center-left European Socialist Party, which includes lawmakers from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s beleaguered Labor Party and Mr. Schroeder’s Social Democrats, finished second with 201 seats. The third-largest group in the EU assembly was the Liberal Democrats with 64 seats.

The Greens won 42 seats, and the left-leaning and communist European United Left group won 36 seats.

Anti-EU parties made a major impact, riding a wave of high voter discontent over how the European Union is run: Britain’s UK Independence Party took 12 seats, four times as many as in the last elections in 1999. Euroskeptics also picked up seats in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and elsewhere.

The election results mean that the European Parliament will be more polarized than ever, with a growing number of anti-EU parties, including far-right anti-immigrant members pitted against the traditional pro-European parties on sensitive issues such as approval of a draft EU constitution.

“This is a wake-up call,” said outgoing European Parliament President Pat Cox, who warned EU leaders they had to do more to tell their electorates that the European Union is important and relevant.

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