- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

The big winners in the European Union parliamentary voting that begins today are likely to be candidates who were never very enthusiastic about the European Union to begin with.

Polls suggest that “Euroskeptic” parties across the continent will substantially boost their standing in the 732-seat parliament, in the first EU elections since the bloc expanded from 15 to 25 nations last month.

That in turn would cast an ominous cloud over efforts to nail down an elusive deal on a new EU constitution, which leaders still hope to achieve at a scheduled summit in Brussels at the end of next week.

The constitution, which would expand the EU’s policy reach and overhaul its creaky executive structure, still must be ratified by all 25 countries, with Britain and at least six other countries committed to holding popular votes.

“Europe’s spirit of unity has all but evaporated,” wrote David Howell, a British Conservative who once was the party’s leading foreign-policy spokesman, in a recent analysis.

The new EU parliament lineup “looks set to include a whole range of members and parties who want less European unity, not more,” he noted.

About 349 million voters are eligible to participate in the three days of voting that ends Sunday, although pollsters say the EU will be hard-pressed to match even the tepid 50 percent turnout for the last elections in 1999.

Center-right parties such as Britain’s Conservatives and Germany’s Christian Democrats are expected to win the largest number of seats, followed by Europe’s leading socialist parties.

But many Euroskeptic forces, including some passionately anti-EU parties, are surging in the late polls and could even hold the balance of power in the next assembly.

“The possible threat of centralization in a European superstate is a prominent campaign theme” is a wide range of EU countries, according to a study by the European Policy Institute Network (EPIN), an umbrella group for about 40 think tanks and policy institutes across the continent.

Surveys say the United Kingdom Independent Party, which advocates British withdrawal from the EU, could get 18 percent this time, more than double its 1999 total.

In Poland, colorful former pig farmer Andrzej Lepper and his anti-EU Self-Defense Party could get as much as one-fifth of Poland’s 54 seats. Mr. Lepper has said he will demand a renegotiation of Poland’s recent entry agreement into the EU to obtain more economic benefits.

Across central and Eastern Europe, nationalist parties are replicating Mr. Lepper’s success. In campaigns marked largely by voter apathy, anti-EU parties in countries such as Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia could win significant numbers of seats.

The rising anti-EU tide is not limited the eastern half of the continent.

In the Netherlands, which takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, a recent poll by the newspaper Volkskrant found that 43 percent of the Dutch oppose expanded EU powers, compared to 30 percent in support of the idea.

Fear of immigration from the EU’s poorer new members has boosted the standing of right-wing populist parties in the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria.

Fierce intra-European divisions over the war in Iraq are expected to fade after Tuesday’s unanimous Security Council vote on a new resolution to guide the country’s future.

But EU-watchers do not expect the accord to have a major influence on the parliamentary campaign, which in many countries is being waged on purely national and even local issues.

“The upcoming election appears in many respects less like one Europeanwide election than like 25 parallel elections in each of the EU member states,” according to the EPIN survey.

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