It didn’t pay to be an incumbent in Europe this past weekend. That’s the conclusion drawn by newspapers across the Continent in the aftermath of the elections for the European Parliament, which took place between Thursday and Sunday.
In surveying the results, Germany’s Die Welt said the Social Democrats Party “now has it in black and white. It lies at rock bottom, where opinion polls have been placing it for months.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung personalized the defeat, calling it “the beginning of Chancellor Schröder’s political twilight.”
Noting that President Jacques Chirac’s UMP party polled just over 16 percent of the French votes cast, Le Nouvel Observateurcalled the results “the second electoral slap in the face for the Raffarin government in three months.”
The slaps to incumbent parties crossed the Continent, although Spain’s Socialists barely eked out a first-place showing, prompting El Pais to term it a “revalidation” of the March national elections, in which the public dumped the Popular Party. (German and Spanish translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
But the most distinctive outcome of Sunday’s election is the harsh spotlight it shines on the public’s inability to get enthused by EU elections. Voter turnout was the lowest it’s been in any Europe-wide poll since World War II. Perhaps surprisingly, Britain’s Financial Times noted, turnout was lowest in most of the 10 countries that joined the EU with so much fanfare barely six weeks ago. “Overall, turnout in the 10 countries was estimated at 29% compared with almost 45% for the 25 EU countries as a whole,” the FT wrote. Some politicians suggested voters in the 10 countries were suffering from euro-voting indigestion, having been asked last year to say if they wanted to join the EU in an accession referendum. Bronislaw Geremek, the former Polish foreign minister and a candidate for the European parliament, said, “Poles may seem indifferent today because the big day was last year’s accession referendum.”
Only in Cyprus did the public seem excited by the prospect of sending representatives to Strassbourg. Seventy percent of eligible Cypriot voters cast ballots.
Cyprus notwithstanding, pundits had a field day with the lack of interest in Sunday’s election. “The biggest winner in the election was apathy,” decreed the International Herald Tribune. Reflecting widespread confusion over the power of the European Parliament, Hungary’s Magyar Hirlap addressed its readers—some of the first-time EU voters—saying, “You have elected deputies to something which is not a parliament.”
Low turnout cannot be attributed only to confusion. The rebukes cast to incumbents in many countries highlight the “Euroscepticism” that imbues many Europeans. Nowhere is this more dramatic than in Britain, where the U.K. Independence Party polled 17 percent, dragging Labor and the Tories to their lowest showings in years.
London’s Times offered a primer on UKIP, but another article tells you pretty much all you need to know when it quotes one of the party’s most flamboyant new parliamentarians. “Asked what he hoped to do in the European Parliament, [Robert] Kilroy-Silk, a former television presenter and Labor MP, said: ‘Wreck it. Expose it for the waste and the corruption and the way it is eroding our independence and our sovereignty. … We are there to … expose the whole edifice.”
Writing in the Guardian, a columnist said that UKIP has dared to say out loud what many Tories have been whispering. “Choosing either the fast exit with UKIP or the slow road out with the Conservatives, the sentiment is much the same: recent polls show two-thirds of Conservative voters want out too. Together, the anti-European parties polled alarmingly well.” While the strong showing of the anti-European forces doesn’t bode well for Prime Minister Tony Blair, neither does it mean he’ll be forced to resign—or even that he will lose his next run for another term in office. “It signals his historic failure to earn the epitaph he intended as the man who led Britain into the heart of Europe. Plans for that monument lie in ruins: under his watch the country has turned against Europe more fiercely than under either Margaret Thatcher or John Major: a threatening milestone on the road to isolation.”