European Voters Cast Protest Ballots

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

Paris ( - Voters choosing representatives for the European Parliament expressed resounding disapproval of their national governments, particularly those that supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

While the weekend's elections were specifically marked by low participation rates, turnout increased in Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark -- countries whose governments have sent troops to Iraq.

John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Center based in Brussels, said that in those countries the "Iraq factor" played an important role.

"People there voted not only against their government, which they did everywhere in Europe, more or less, but turned out in larger numbers to do so," said Palmer.

Some 45 percent of the 350-million eligible voters elected representatives to the European Parliament over four days of voting from Thursday to Sunday. The overall participation figure is considered low in Europe.

The 732-seat European Parliament, comprised of representatives from the 25 member nations of the European Union, is based in Strasbourg, France and Brussels, Belgium and has limited powers to set policy on issues such as the EU budget, transportation, trade and environment.

"Although foreign and security policy are not matters on which the European Parliament can pass laws," said Palmer, "I think its voice on foreign and security policy, and hence on transatlantic relations, is going to be much more important."

Palmer said that many of the people who have been elected have a strong view about the issues surrounding international relations.

One of the exceptions to the protest vote was in Spain, where voters elected a Socialist government in March in response to an election promise to withdraw troops from Iraq. Spanish Socialist Party candidates for the European Parliament received confirmation of their electorate's support.

In France and Germany, where the governments had opposed intervention in Iraq, voters expressed opposition to the governing parties by favoring opposition candidates in what has been taken as a protest vote against domestic social and economic policies.

With the vote-count continuing, the center-right European People's Party won at least 270 seats and will be the largest voting bloc in the parliament. Center-left parties, or Socialists, including the parties that represent British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, are expected to be the second largest party with some 200 seats.

European voters, who elect representatives to the parliament for five-year terms, have maintained a balance of political power similar to the 1999 elections; but analysts are viewing the strong protest vote this year as the most important issue.

Palmer said that once the results have been examined, the European Parliament will become "much more of a sounding board for European concerns about the direction of U.S. policy than it's been in the past."

"You'll see the parliament demanding a clearer distancing of Europe from some of the policies of President Bush's administration," said Palmer.

Disagreements over issues like the Middle East and the role of global law, such as for the United Nations, the international criminal court, and the Kyoto agreement might be examined more closely.

"You're likely to see the European Union governments come under pressure to assert a collective European voice more clearly in world affairs," said Palmer.

Analysts were also surprised the low participation rate -- 26 percent -- among most of the 10 new EU member states.

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