Europe's desperate bid to bring out voters

European leaders on Sunday stepped up a desperate battle to persuade people to vote for the unloved EU Parliament this week, but the campaign has opened up new political divisions across the
continent.

With polls indicating a record low turnout for the June 4 to 7 election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint plea to voters, saying a strong Parliament was essential to confront the economic crisis.

The two said they want “a strong Europe that protects” its people and called for “all Europeans to vote” in the statement, published by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in France and Die
Welt am Sonntag
in Germany.

A “strong Europe does not necessarily mean more powers for the European Union, even more European legislation or even more financial means,” said Merkel and Sarkozy who still called for
“real European regulation” to tackle the financial crisis.

They said first steps “to assure real European regulation in the financial sector, based on coordination and cooperation between regulators” should be taken at the EU summit in June.

“For speculative funds, tax havens, payment for executives and financial traders, we want an exemplary Europe,” the French and German leaders said.

The pair also gave strong backing to the Lisbon reform treaty, deadlocked by Ireland’s rejection in a referendum last year.

“Europe must play a leading role in the world. For that, it must have efficient institutions.
That is why we need the Lisbon Treaty,” they said.

Merkel and Sarkozy said they were ready to work on “political accord on guarantees for Ireland” at the June summit and they have “confidence in the Irish to choose Europe” when they hold a new referendum this year.

The two also reaffirmed opposition to Turkey joining the EU, without naming the country. “To be able to act, the EU needs frontiers. Unlimited enlargement is not possible.”

The statement highlighted fears that the vote for the 736 member European assembly could prove a new embarrassment for the 27-nation EU.

There was a record 45% abstention at the last election in 2004.

Surveys in France indicate that only a third of the electorate will take part in the country’s EU vote next Sunday.

In Britain, Poland and Romania, fewer than one in three people plan to vote, according to recent surveys.

In Spain, which has benefited enormously from EU funds, analysts expect turnout of 40% at best. Portugal expects a record abstention rate.

The stakes are higher now however as the Parliament is likely to win a bigger voice in decisions that affect the EU’s 500-million population if the Lisbon treaty comes into force.

“A lot of voters don’t understand what the European Parliament does,” said Philip White, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.

“You’re not voting to keep a government in office or kick it out. The stakes can seem a little bit less clear than they are in national elections,” he said.

But in many countries the EU vote will be a test of the national governments in power. Far right and left wing parties are expected to benefit from protest votes in some countries.

Polls indicate Britain’s ruling Labour Party will be hammered in the election, which will be held on Thursday, possibly dropping into third place.

The leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, has opened up new divisions in Europe by saying he would withdraw his party from the main centre-right bloc in the EU
Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), and join a new more euro-sceptic alliance with parties from the Czech Republic and Poland.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s conservative Moderates are also losing ground in the run-up to the elections, according to opinion poll released on Saturday.

The EPP is still expected to remain the biggest single party in the Parliament, which already has a key role approving the EU budget and passing laws on a wide range of issues.

The Parliament will also endorse the new president of the European Commission after a nomination is made by the EU summit.

José Manuel Barroso, the conservative former Portuguese prime minister, is widely expected to get a second term. - AFP

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