EU elections put focus on eastern Europe

BRUSSELS: Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, who all joined the European Union in 2004, voted Saturday in European Parliament elections expected to provide a major boost to anti-EU parties in several countries.
“I always vote whenever there is an election,” Maria Cauchi said in tiny Malta which has six seats in the new parliament. Voting began on Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands and continued twenty four hours later in the Czech Republic and Ireland. Most countries go to the polls at the weekend as Saturday sets the stage for the remaining 21 EU states to vote on Sunday for a parliament equipped with new powers and a key say in who gets to head the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Nearly 400 million people have the ballot but many choose not to vote. Turnout has fallen steadily from 62 percent in 1979 to just 43 percent in 2009, when Slovakia came bottom of the class with less than 20 percent.
Such low numbers have analysts talking of an EU ‘democratic deficit,’ reflecting voter hostility to a bloated bureaucracy in Brussels identified with the harsh austerity policies adopted to stabilise strained public finances. With an economy growing only very slowly, pro-EU politicians have to work hard to get their message across that member states will do better together than apart. ‘Better together’ however does get a better reception in eastern Europe, where former communist states run from Moscow keep a very wary eye on Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Finding safety in the EU and NATO since the end of the Cold War, countries such as Poland are firm believers in the European project — a recent Pew Research Centre poll there showed 72 percent support for the bloc. For Latvia and fellow Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia, a resurgent Russia under President Vladimir Putin is a cause of a concern to which the eurosceptics have no answer. “I remember what elections were during the Soviet era. That’s why I make sure I vote in every democratic election I can,” Latvian pensioner Liga Laizane told AFP early Saturday.
In Slovakia, another pensioner, Maria Hajkova, had a similar message. “I always vote and I don’t understand why so many young people ignore this election ... I want the European politicians to preserve peace and prevent the war from spreading from Ukraine.” Others seemed less convinced. Loaded down with fishing gear, Latvian Raimonds Graubins told AFP he was unlikely to cast his ballot. “It depends on the fish. If my net is full of pike by lunchtime I may vote. If they are difficult, I’ll probably be out all night!” he laughed.
With reports putting turnout at just 10 percent by midday — compared with nearly 54 percent in 2009 — Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma urged voters to the polls. “I invite everyone to show civic responsibility and vote in the European Parliament election. Europe’s future is Latvia’s future,” the premier said in a tweeted message. In the Czech Republic, the CTK news agency said voter turnout Friday had been just 10 percent, making it very likely the final tally will be below the 28 percent of 2009.
Analysts said that despite the expected gains by the anti-EU camp, the vote should still leave the broad centre-right and centre-left parties in control with about 70 percent of the seats. They may “differ on many policy aspects (but) they will work together with each other and member states when necessary,” said Christian Schulz of Germany’s Berenberg Bank. For Schulz, the real problem is for national governments, who may feel they have to take on board some of the anti-EU complaints to win over voters hurt by a long economic slump and record unemployment.
Recent opinion polls suggest the eurosceptic parties could triple their presence to almost 100 in the 751-seat assembly, with Britain, France and Italy key states. In local council elections Thursday, ‘man-in-the-street’ Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) did well enough to have political pundits talking about a real change in Britain’s political landscape. “We are serious players,” Farage said, promising to take the fight to the government ahead of general elections next year.

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Aaj Kal