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Europe

Brussels Flummoxed by Low Eastern Voter Turnout

Low turnout in the European elections from former Eastern Bloc states leads to a rebuke from the European Commission and EU policy experts.

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Only one in five Poles cast their votes for the European Parliament this weekend.

For European citizens of the former Eastern Bloc, membership in the European Union was meant to symbolize the final step towards democracy. But it was precisely in these former Communist countries where turnout at this week's European Parliamentary election was at its weakest.

Eastern Europe's largest EU state, Poland, ranked near the bottom of the turnout list, with only 20.42 percent of Poles heading for the polls. The only country that fared worse was Slovakia, where 17 percent thought a trip to the voting booth was worth it. In the Czech Republic, there was 27.9 percent turnout; 38.47 in Hungary; 30.3 percent in Lithuania. While the original 15 EU member states averaged turnout rates of close to 50 percent of registered voters, the new states (with the exceptions of Cyprus and Malta) averaged around 25 percent.

Even euroskeptic Britain, where U.K. Independence Party scored big with its platform of immediate withdrawal from the EU, pulled in more voters, with close to 40 percent casting ballots.

'Highly unsatisfactory'

The scale of low participation perplexed the European Commission, the EU executive in Brussels, which issued a statement Monday describing the turnout as "highly unsatisfactory."

Writing that the Commission had no intention of "shirking" its duty to educate voters, the statement said Brussels would mobilize resources in order to "put Europe back at the center of political debate in these member states."

EU observers and politicians in former Eastern Bloc countries also reacted with dismay to rampant voter apathy.

"When it comes to Eastern Europe, the turnout rates were shockingly low," Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform in London, told DW-WORLD. "These countries should be especially enthusiastic about exercising democracy. Economically, they don't stand to gain much from EU membership, since the economic benefits would have come anyway. What they wanted with EU membership was a say, a place at the table in Brussels. Now they've been given that right and they stayed at home."

Katinka attributed the low turnout to uncertainty in the new member states about what, exactly, the European Parliament does. As a policy-making institution, it has been around for years, but knowledge of parliament's workings is low throughout Europe -- both new and old. And many countries just voted last year in referendums on EU membership and weren't aware the responsibilities of EU membership would come so quickly.

"Fatigue is a trend," she said, "simply because expectations were so high. Now, Eastern Europeans are taking a more realistic view of what EU membership means."

Instead of the panacea some may have hoped for, the reality of EU membership is less sugar-coated. Countries aren't getting the huge influx of funding they had hoped for, and Poland had its first run-in with Brussels over the delicate consensus-based method of EU policy making in its dispute over voting rights in the draft constitution. The path toward Europe is helping the Eastern economies grow, but major changes will come only gradually.

Another major problem has been education: Many voters across Europe simply do not understand how the European Union operates. And that lack of knowledge can breed fear.

Eastern leaders: We're disappointed, too

"It is euroskepticism -- people don't understand," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Anatnas Valionis told reporters. "Leaders need to do a better job at explaining what the European Union means."

Some Eastern leaders are already publicly expressing their fears about the consequences the low turnout could have for the image of the new members in Brussels.

Speaking on Polish state radio, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski conceded Tuesday that his country's low turnout wouldn't make Poland's nascent membership in the EU any easier. "We are certainly making a weak entry into the EU. The power of our arguments is not strengthened with such a weak turnout."

But the Centre for European Reform's Barysch offers a more sanguine view: "This won't hurt them in Brussels. The EU obviously has a strong interest in keeping its new members happy and avoiding any further anti-EU backlash" as was seen in England, where the anti-European UKIP took in 17 percent of the vote.

For her part, Barysch said it was time for the new member states to take stock of their accomplishments. There will be problems -- like doling out slices of appropriations from a limited EU budget cake or the squabbling over the finer points of the EU constitution -- but that is no reason for euroskepticism, she said.

"I would expect that Eastern Europeans will see membership very smoothly," she adds. "They just need to look further east -- to Moldavia, to Georgia or the Balkans and what a mess it is there to see what all that preparation for their accession to the EU has done for them."

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  • Date 16.06.2004
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5BnL
  • Date 16.06.2004
  • Author Daryl Lindsey
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/5BnL