Last week’s elections to the 732-seat European Parliament provided the first major test of the electorate’s views since 10 new countries joined the European Union on May 1. Voters in 25 member states cast their ballots, but the results and the generally low turnout brought little comfort to federalists or Euro-enthusiasts. The Resident highlights results in Britain and in Portugal and gives an overview of the overall outcome throughout Europe.
UKIP breakthrough in Britain
The anti-EU UK Independence Party dealt a devastating blow to both the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain. With almost all the results counted, the UKIP was in third place on 16.8 per cent, behind Labour on 23 per cent and the Conservatives, in first place, on 27 per cent. In all, the UK Independence Party received twice as many votes as in 1999, the date of the last European elections.
But the results made grim reading for Britain’s two main parties. The voting ended with Labour’s worst showing in a national election since before the First World War and the Conservative Party’s worst performance since 1832. It is the first time ever that the two largest parties have secured less than half of the vote between them.
Health Secretary John Reid conceded that the results posed a “huge challenge” for Labour “to argue our case for Europe”, but said the Conservative share of the vote was “disastrous”. Meanwhile, Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary Michael Ancram said: “We are not as high as we would like, but we are winning this election.” The Liberal Democrats – on 15.1 per cent – were pushed into fourth place, but could still claim to be the only main party to increase their share of the vote. The UK turnout, at 39 per cent, topped the record of 37 per cent for a European election set in 1989, but was still below the overall EU turnout, which fell to an all-time low of 44.6 per cent.
It was a good night for the smaller parties in general. The Greens held on to their two members of the European Parliament with six per cent of the vote and the British National Party’s share of the vote increased by four per cent to five per cent. But the UK Independence Party has most cause for celebration. Perhaps its most famous candidate, former TV presenter Robert Kilroy–Silk, was elected as an MEP in the East Midlands. The former Labour MP said in his victory speech that the UKIP was tackling the “most important issue of our generation”.
Shock death mars low Portuguese vote
In Portugal, where 24 seats in the European parliament were being contested in the 732-seat European parliament, the Socialist Party emerged in front with 12 seats – a net gain of one seat –and the ruling Social Democratic Party, in coalition with the Popular Party, lost two seats to finish second. The Socialists finished on 44.5 per cent of the vote, their best ever election result, more than 10 points ahead of the ‘Força Portugal’, which polled 33.26 per cent of the vote.
Prime Minister Durão Barroso admitted he was disappointed at the outcome. He denied he was planning a ministerial reshuffle, but warned his government that it would have to do “more and better”. Socialist opposition leader, Ferro Rodrigues, commented that Barroso should “draw rapid conclusions from the result.“ Portugal’s abstention rate, at 61.23 per cent, was the second highest in the European Union.
The campaign in Portugal had been marred by the sudden death of the Socialist Party’s António Sousa Franco, a 61-year-old former finance minister and their main candidate in the elections. He suffered a heart attack after visiting a fish market in Matosinhos, in a suburb of Porto, where a dispute had earlier broken out involving supporters of rival candidates. He was unhurt in the altercation and appeared to be well when he left the market, but collapsed shortly afterwards. A leading Socialist member of the concelho said the fallout from the death would be significant: “If Sousa Franco’s death had not occurred, what had happened in the shop would have been forgotten within a few days, but now it will remain indelibly linked to this tragedy.” A pensioner seemed to sum up the national mood when he described the fracas as “a disgrace that will haunt us for the rest of our days”.
Politicians from all sides paid tribute to Sousa Franco who, as minister of finance under the previous socialist administration, had imposed tight controls on public spending which made it possible for Portugal to adopt the European single currency. Deus Pinheiro, head of the list of candidates from the PSD/CDS-PP coalition, expressed his regret at not having the opportunity to work with Sousa Franco in Brussels, and Prime Minister Durão Barroso also paid his respects, citing Sousa Franco’s “exceptional public service and career”.
Pathetically low turnout
Overall, it was Europe’s opposition parties who benefitted the most from the EU election. Governing parties in Germany, France and Poland suffered heavy losses, while many Euro-sceptic parties recorded their best results ever at the polls. Germans showed their discontent, with Chancellor Schröder receiving only 21.6 per cent voting for his ruling Social Democrats, compared with 30.7 per cent in the last European elections five years ago.
In France, Chirac’s Union for the Popular Movement garnered only 16.5 per cent of the vote, finishing a far second behind the Socialist Party. Elsewhere, the voting was a victory for anti-EU and euro-sceptic parties.
Overall, 155 million people, out of a total electorate of 350 million eligible voters in the 25 member states, cast their ballots, making it one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world. But the turnout was still described by European spokesman David Harley as “pathetically low”, particularly in the 10 new EU entrants. Few commentators had predicted that turnout would be lowest not in the UK and the Netherlands, as five years ago, but instead in the eight central and eastern European countries that joined the EU on May 1.