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Europe’s Paradoxical Parliament

What do members of the European Parliament (MEPs) actually do? Most of the 375 million or so people eligible to vote in the European elections on June 4-7 probably have only a hazy idea, or none at all, which explains why voter turnout throughout the European Union is likely to be disastrously low. Thirty years ago, when the first elections to the parliament were held, almost two-thirds of the electorate voted, but over the years, participation has dropped steadily. This year it may be 30%.

Europe’s politicians are by and large proud of the EU and the way it has both grown and deepened. But it is also the EU’s growing complexity that is at the root of voters’ waning enthusiasm, so their indifference is a matter for serious concern.

The European elections are themselves curious and unsatisfactory; there are no obvious EU-wide issues that people can vote for or against, and, with the average MEP’s constituency numbering well over half a million people, the vote is not a test of personal popularity, either. In most parts of Europe, the elections will be an opportunity for protest votes on national issues.

Paradoxically, though, great deal hangs on the elections’ outcome. The number of seats won by the socialists and centre-right parties is likely to influence the make-up of the next European Commission – and thus the EU’s political agenda until 2014.