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In volatile mood, EU voters called to polls

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage is pictured as he arrives for television interviews in central London on May 21, 2014, on the eve of local council and European elections. (AFP PHOTO / CARL COURT)

BRUSSELS: These days, more Europeans than ever are skeptical or hostile toward efforts to unite the continent into an economic and political superpower. In that volatile mood, voters in 28 countries Thursday begin choosing the next European Parliament and helping determine the EU’s future leaders and course.A prominent Dutch Euroskeptic, Geert Wilders, predicts the results will produce a political earthquake.

From Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, support has never been shakier for allowing the European Union and its institutions a major say over people’s lives. Founded in the aftermath of World War II with the goal of fostering prosperity and peace, the EU is now blamed by many for tough economic times, bureaucratic overreach and doing the bidding of the rich and powerful.

“The cake should be shared out better,” Portuguese fisherman Fernando Ferreira, 50, said after docking his wooden-hauled trawler at a Lisbon wharf. “They should come and speak to us small people, and find out what things are really like.”

Around 400 million Europeans are eligible to take part in what is termed the world’s largest cross-border exercise in representative democracy. By the time the final ballots are cast and counted Sunday, they are expected to show a surge in support for parties on the left and right fringes that aim to prune back the EU’s powers, reform the trade bloc – or abolish it altogether.

“The reputation of the European Union has been one of the many casualties of the economic crisis,” said Maurice Fraser, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Many on the left have traditionally depicted it as a tool of global capitalism and now treat it as a convenient scapegoat for the belt-tightening which all EU governments are having to undertake.”

One opinion survey released this month found only 52 percent of those surveyed in seven European countries had a favorable opinion of the EU, and most complaining it doesn’t understand their needs and is intrusive and inefficient.

In the election, voter turnout – 43 percent the last time in 2009 – should slump even lower though the European Parliament has gained more powers. For many Europeans, the multinational legislature that divides its time between Brussels and Strasbourg in France remains remote and mysterious.

“The next time I meet my MEP [member of the European Parliament], it will be the first time,” said Jim Caldwell, 42, a street sweeper from Dublin.

In the Czech Republic, an April poll showed 80 percent of those surveyed didn’t care about the elections, and only about a third intended to vote.

EU-wide, 16,380 candidates from 953 different parties or lists are vying for one of the 751 seats to be filled. In Sweden, appalled by attempts to restrict abortions in Spain, the Feminist Initiative party is attempting to become the first fully fledged feminist party represented in the European Parliament.

To try to drum up citizen enthusiasm, the multinational legislature’s TV promos and advertisements have been telling Europeans, “this time it’s different.”

It is true that for the first time, votes cast by EU citizens from Thursday to Sunday are supposed to be a factor in selecting the president of the European Commission, the trade bloc’s executive arm. But the candidates openly running for the post, including former prime ministers of Luxembourg and Belgium and the European Parliament’s outgoing president, have failed to generate much grassroots excitement.

“There’s no one out there who inspires me to vote,” said Stefanos Eleftheriou, 28, a university graduate in Cyprus who has been hunting for two years for a job in publishing. “We’re seeing the same things being constantly recycled – that’s what we’re turning our back on,” he said.

Peter Sznur, 67, a retiree who lives with his wife in the Berlin neighborhood of Wilmersdorf, wants the EU to start focusing more on people’s genuine needs and stop paying mere lip service to the ideal of one Europe.

“For example, why should Germany take down all of its nuclear power plants if next door in neighboring counties they build as many nuclear power plants as they can?” Sznur said. “That’s so senseless – if there’s a meltdown in Poland it’s going to affect us just as much as if it happened in our own country.”

An independent Brussels-based organization, VoteWatch Europe, has crunched opinion polls from across the EU, and is predicting parties of all kinds that oppose the European Union in its current form will net up to 30 percent of the overall vote (up from less than 20 percent in 2009), meaning a boost in parliamentary seats from 100 to 180.

Wilders, founder and leader of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, is forecasting a game changer, and not just in the EU, but in the national politics of the countries that belong to it as well.

“What we have in common is that we want to have less transfer – even the repatriation – of sovereign rights to our national capitals instead of the Eurozone,” Wilders said of the parties that oppose the European Union as it now is. “Anything that wants to have more power, spend more money on countries like Greece or other countries or have more countries joining the eurozone – that we would wish to stop.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2014, on page 11.

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