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World

Surfing for a Better Europe

With its comprehensive new E-Vote online poll, the Greek presidency of the European Union is hoping to give EU citizens a sounding board that has Brussels' ears.

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Internet users are having their say on important European Union issues.

One of the key pledges made by Greece earlier this years as it took over the rotating presidency of the European Union was to bring the work of Brussels closer to the people. Under the logo "Vote for the EU you want," Greece launched the ambitious "E-Vote" project.

By inviting users at www.evote.eu2003.gr to complete a survey with broad questions on current EU developments, Greece wanted to find out what Europeans think about the EU, the Brussels bureacracy and its policies. So far, about 30,000 Europeans have participated in the survey -- barely a fraction of the continent's 380 million residents -- but traffic has been steadily increasing.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou described E-Vote as a "tool" that gives people the opportunity to express their opinions about important EU decisions. "Of course we hope that over time more people will participate," he said.

Fundamental questions

The site – in its own words -- gives users the opportunity to "nurture. . .and shape" the future of the European Union.

Users are invited to give their opinions on a wide range of issues, including what the newly enlarged EU should be called. As well as keeping the EU name tag, the choices include "Europa" and "The United States of Europe." Some pretty interesting conclusions can be drawn from the representative poll, too.

More than half of the Europeans who have participated described the current eastward expansion of the European Union to include 10 new member states from mostly former communist eastern European countries as "good" or "very good." Yet despite their overall support for expansion, many had misgivings about extending immigration rights to the new members, where economies tend to be less developed than in western Europe.

Close to half of the participants expressed opinions critical of the EU's foreign policy in the Middle East and Africa. Despite such critiques, the overwhelming majority want to concentrate more foreign policy power in Brussels: 90 percent of participants said they believed the EU should speak with one voice on foreign and security policy.

Participants have also had much to say about the war in Iraq. More than 100,000 opinions have been expressed on the subject and the outcome is significant: over 90 percent of those surveyed said they did not believe there was a legal basis to justify the war against Iraq. Almost as many said they did not think their country should send troops to fight in the war -- instead, they supported the idea of joint EU diplomacy on the matter.

Criticism welcomed

Still, Papandreou is skeptical when asked whether the e-Vote project will influence Brussels policy-making. Instead, he's issued an appeal to politicians in Europe's capital city. "The bureaucrats and politicians need to discuss the views of their citizens, and the residents need to feel that their opinions about important EU decisions are being considered." Papandreou said he isn't exactly sure how that will happen.

But, he argued, "when decisions at the EU level are influenced by such surveys, citizens will become more trusting and will increasingly take part in these polls."

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