European leaders on Sunday stepped up a desperate battle to persuade people to vote for the EU parliament this week, but the campaign has opened up new political divisions across the continent.
With polls indicating a record low turnout for the June 4-7 election, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint plea to voters, saying a strong parliament was essential to confront the economic crisis.
The two leaders said they want “a strong Europe that protects” its people and called for “all Europeans to vote” in the statement, published by the Journal du Dimanche newspaper in France and Die Welt am Sonntag in Germany.
A “strong Europe does not necessarily mean more powers for the European Union, even more European legislation or even more financial means,” said Merkel and Sarkozy.
First steps “to assure real European regulation in the financial sector, based on coordination and cooperation between regulators” should be taken at the next EU summit in June, they said.
“For speculative funds, tax havens, payment for executives and financial traders, we want an exemplary Europe,” they added.
The pair also gave strong backing to the Lisbon reform treaty, intended to streamline EU decision-making but deadlocked by Ireland’s rejection in a referendum last year.
“Europe must play a leading role in the world. For that, it must have efficient institutions. That is why we need the Lisbon Treaty,” they said.
Merkel and Sarkozy also reaffirmed opposition to Turkey joining the EU, without naming the country. “To be able to act, the EU needs frontiers. Unlimited enlargement is not possible.”
The joint statement highlighted fears that the vote for the 736 member European assembly could prove a new embarrassment for the 27-nation European Union, after a record 45 percent abstention at the last election in 2004.
In France, a poll for the Le Parisien newspaper Sunday suggested that 55 percent of the nation’s would not bother going to the polls. In Britain, Poland and Romania, fewer than one in three plan to vote, according to recent surveys.
In Spain, which has benefited enormously from EU development funds, political analysts expect turnout of 40 percent at best. Portugal expects a record abstention rate.
The stakes are higher now, however, as the European Parliament -- the only directly elected EU institution -- will have a bigger voice in decisions that affect 500 million Europeans if the Lisbon treaty comes into force.
“A lot of voters don’t understand what the European Parliament does,” said Philip White, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.
“You’re not voting to keep a government in office or kick it out. The stakes can seem a little bit less clear than they are in national elections.”
But in many countries the EU vote will be a test of the national governments in power, with far-right and left-wing parties expected to benefit from protest votes and low turnouts in some member states.
In Britain, where euroscepticism runs deep, the governing Labour Party is expected to garner only 16 to 17 percent of the vote, putting it in third place against the rival Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, weekend polls in the Times and Sunday Telegraph suggested.
Turnout at European elections in Britain is usually low -- in the last polls in 2004, it was just 38 percent, and this time, fringe parties like the anti-EU UK Independence Party and the far-right British National Party are expected to benefit.
An Economist magazine/YouGov poll last week found that only 31 percent of Britons think its membership of the European Union is a good thing, compared to 37 percent who think it is bad.
The leader of the main opposition Conservatives, David Cameron, has opened up new divisions in Europe by saying he would withdraw his party from the main centre-right bloc in the EU parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), and join a new eurosceptic alliance with Czech and Polish parties.
The EPP is still expected to remain the biggest single party in the parliament, which already has a key role approving the EU budget and passing laws on a wide range of issues.
The parliament will also endorse the new president of the European Commission after a nomination is made by the EU summit. Jose Manuel Barroso, the conservative former Portuguese prime minister, is widely expected to get a second term.