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Will apathy reign?

Fears that low turnout for the European Parliament elections could boost extremist parties.

A combination of undated pictures shows various electoral posters from EU countries for the European Parliament elections. (Reuters)

BRUSSELS — Expectations of record-low turnout and the massive efforts to change that have been the dominant themes of media coverage ahead of the June 4 to June 7 European Parliament (EP) elections, far eclipsing discussion of policy or issues.

Conventional wisdom holds that extremist parties stand to benefit if a large proportion of the public stays home on polling days. A poll last week showed the number of likely voters on the rise — 49 percent now versus 34 percent from January to February polling. But the major political groups remain desperate — and unlikely — to hold onto every seat in the face of strong challenges from unconventional parties.

EP President Hans-Gert Pottering, a member of Germany’s Christian Democrats and the EP’s largest grouping, the European People’s Party, is among those who has been warning voters about what apathy may bring. “(I)f the people who are in favor of Europe will not vote or are not interested, then the extremes will be very strong, from the very left and from the very right,” Pottering told a large public gathering earlier this month. “I don't want that those who want to destroy the EU have an important role to play in the future of the EU.”

Pottering was not exaggerating. Though “euroscepticism” is not uncommon within the EP — the Independence and Democracy (IND/DEM) coalition claims 22 MEPs who are openly eurosceptic and some who are even secessionist — the term, if not the mindset, has become much more popular in the 2009 campaign.

In Britain, for example, a poll commissioned by The Economist revealed that this sentiment has grown significantly over the last 25 years, with the percentage of British citizens who think the EU is a “bad thing” rising from 30 to 37 percent and those who dislike being in the union rising even more dramatically, from 31 to 43 percent. What’s unclear is which parties will benefit from that change.

UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, currently holds nine seats in an institution it wants to abandon by convincing Britain to withdraw from the EU. A new party, No2EU — Yes to Democracy, has even sprung up in the final weeks before the election. The alliance contends that workers are not well served by EU membership, and takes euroscepticism to a new level: “We will not even sit in the European parliament in the event of winning any seats,” its platform states. “Our candidates will only nominally hold the title MEP and will not board the notorious EU gravy train.”

One thing these two parties do agree on is distaste for the British National Party (BNP), which has six candidates on the ballot. BNP shares their opposition to belonging to the EU, but also says that the U.K. should stop all immigration, which it believes makes “white Britons second-class citizens.” No2EU accuses BNP not only of promoting “racist political ends” but also of not being sufficiently anti-EU, saying it “can’t wait to get on the gravy train and link up with other fascist parties from Italy and France in the European parliament.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/european-union/090603/will-apathy-reign