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'Euro-fatigue' threatens turnout in continental vote

The four-day election for a 25-nation European Parliament begins Thursday. Polls indicate that voter turnout may be low.

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Ask a European about the moment of history taking place across the Continent this week, and you get a puzzled response. The D-Day anniversary? A gay marriage in France? The start of the Euro 2004 soccer championships?

Actually it's the biggest transnational election ever, a four-day democratic marathon starting Thursday in which 350 million people from Lisbon to Lapland, Ljubljana to Limerick are eligible to vote for a 25-nation Parliament.

It may sound impressive, but Europeans are underwhelmed. Polls show that turnout is likely to be even more dismal than the record low 49 percent five years ago. Indeed, the only parties anticipating the vote with any relish are those who advocate liquidating the EU altogether. Few voters know their candidates, or even what the European Parliament does.

"I will vote, but most people in Denmark don't even know it's on," says Andreas from Copenhagen.

"I don't know who's running or anything about them," says Jane from London.

"I'm voting, but only because in Belgium you have to by law," says Marianne from Beringen.

Analysts ascribe the ennui to two factors. First, there is a kind of Euro-fatigue sweeping the Continent, a weariness with the heady activity of recent years - including a new currency, 10 new members, and a new constitution drafted at great length.

"We need to sell Europe better to the people," says Katinka Barysch, an expert at the London-based Centre for European Reform. "National governments use Brussels as a scapegoat. Citizens think there is this opaque bureaucracy at the heart of Europe making decisions. People have to be reminded of the benefits, that they can travel freely, live and work in different countries, and do business easily in a market of 450 million."

Then there is the Parliament, a 732-seat chamber that has been criticized as a talking shop, a gravy train, and a traveling circus. European lawmakers, or MEPs, enjoy an extravagant blend of expenses and perks, and additional waste is incurred every month when the entire show moves from Brussels to Strasbourg for a week.

Anti-EU MEPs calculate the waste at $1 billion-plus a year. "There is no doubt that the European Parliament has been its own worst enemy," says Nigel Gardner, who is running for Parliament as a British Labour Party candidate. "It has not acted quickly enough to clean up the expenses system or to establish a single home."

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