Between June 4 and 7, about 375 million people will have the opportunity to decide who will fill the seats in the next European parliament.
British voters expected to vent anger at the polls
LONDON // The one cast-iron certainty about the European parliament elections in Britain is that they will have precious little to do with Europe or its parliament. This truism is truer this time round than ever before, though that scarcely diminishes the significance of the outcome. A month ago, the UK's European Parliament poll on June 4 looked like a straightforward test of the popularity of Gordon Brown and his Labour government. It was a contest that Mr Brown seemed destined to lose in a pretty spectacular fashion. Indeed, he still does.
But a month is a very, very long time in politics and, now, the elections are not just about the unpopularity of Labour in particular, but about the unpopularity of politicians in general. The row over MPs from all parties fiddling their taxpayer-funded expenses is to blame for generating an attitude among the public of "a plague on both your houses of parliament". It is likely to be reflected on June 4 by a mass abstention of the polling stations or, perhaps, protest votes for fringe parties such as the UK Independence Party - as doggedly an anti-EU bunch as you are likely to find - the Greens or even the neo-fascist British National Party.
The spectre of the latter getting a seat in the European Parliament is deeply worrying to many Britons and, especially, to ethnic minority groups. Last week, the Muslim Council of Britain urged imams and community leaders to remind local communities about how vital it was to get out and vote next month. "The active participation of the Muslim community is imperative to prevent Islamophobic groups such as the British National Party to gain a foothold because of low voter turnout," said the council.
"The BNP will be stoking up anti-Muslim hatred to win a seat. They need one million votes and, once they get in, they will join Islamophobes on continental Europe to attack Muslims and other minorities." Unfortunately, the call for people to get out and vote comes not only at a time of general disenchantment with politicians because of the expenses scandal, but against the backdrop of a society angered with the whole European concept.
Many Britons simply feel they have been conned: that they believed the nation was joining a trading organisation but now find it interfering in all sorts of aspects of everyday life. Yet, perversely, opinion polls have consistently shown that most Britons still prefer to be inside the euro-club rather than outside it. And the economic downturn has even resurrected some talk, albeit fairly desultory, of the advantages of scrapping the pound and joining the Eurozone.
The position of the three main political parties is that the Conservatives, the main opposition party with a 20-plus point lead in opinion polls, is most avowedly anti-European; the ruling Labour Party goes along with the way things are; and the third-place Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European. "Unfortunately, as in many other countries, the European elections here are not about Europe," said Timothy Garton Ash, author and professor of European studies at Oxford University. "They are, to the extent that they feature at all, mainly a verdict on Gordon Brown's government and its popularity, which is not very great at the moment.
"I would expect a low turnout and my guess is that of all the people voting, 70 to 80 per cent will vote on national issues. Only the remaining, small minority will take European questions into account." But, given the public anger over MPs' expenses, it is hard to judge how many people will bother to vote anyway. In the last elections five years ago, 38.5 per cent of the electorate turned out. Pollsters expect a figure up to 10 points lower than that this time with those that do bother to cast their vote expected to favour the fringe parties.
The early indications are that the UK Independence Party could be the big winner with the latest polls showing that their support is standing at between 15 per cent and 19 per cent, four times what it was at the beginning of May and, if the higher figure is to be believed, about the same level of support as for Labour. If, indeed, Mr Brown's party does only get about one-fifth of the popular vote, these elections in the UK will be as dramatic as the Labour faithful fear, with the prime minister taking on the mantle of a dead man walking - or, perhaps, stumbling - towards next year's general election. Good news for the Conservatives, perhaps, although their own support has tumbled nine points in a month in the wake of the expenses scandal.
All of which make the European elections in the UK significant, if for reasons that have nothing to do with Europe. "I was at a breakfast meeting with a group of well-informed pro-European British," says Prof Garton Ash, "when a leading politician said that the election campaign should be about Europe. A hollow laughter went around the table. In a way, that tells it all." firstname.lastname@example.org