Expenses Scandal to Dominate Britain’s European Elections

Just a week to go before European elections, and British prime minister Gordon Brown launches his personal manifesto. It is our task, he says, to persuade people that millions of new jobs will depend on higher levels of co-operation between EU members. He calls for a European growth strategy and advocates a much enhanced role for the EIB and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He says that he has spoken to President Barroso about apprenticeships.

For Gordon Brown it is a forthright message: “Britain must remain a nation in Europe’s mainstream and not in its slipstream”. The odd thing is that the PM has chosen a column in the Financial Times to make his case.  Much as I revere that esteemed paper, you could hardly imagine a less populist outlet to rally the British people to his cause. What’s more, seven days does not give much time for the message to get around.

But maybe that’s the point. The British political scene is now totally dominated by the scandal of MPs’ expenses. The whole political class is now vilified, almost to the point of witch-hunting, and any campaigning for the European elections is completely overshadowed by the Daily Telegraph’s daily diet of stories detailing the use and abuse of the expenses system by one MP after another.

The British public is furiously angry with its elected representatives and has no time for matters of policy. The party volunteers who canvass for votes have been shocked by the anger on the doorstep.

The question is: how will voters react next Thursday June 4, when the British are due to vote? The fact is: nobody knows. Perhaps massive abstention, so turnout collapses; and/or a surge of votes to the British National Party whose anti-immigrant views chime with those voters who resent the more open policies of the main parties.

The UK Independence Party could (once again) be a major beneficiary of the public mood with its Get-Britain-Out rallying call, although other parties have been swift to point out that UKIP is no stranger to scandal. A surge to the Conservatives from UKIP, which seemed a likely outcome a month or so back, now appears less probable, given the opprobrium which has been heaped on Tory as well as Labour MPs in the expenses scandal. In normal times the unpopularity of the government would guarantee a massive switch from Labour to Conservative. These are not normal times.

Britain is in the middle of a massive political crisis, which makes its European election outcome impossible to call, but other countries will learn next week just how disgruntled – or satisfied – their own voters are in the face of the current recession.  It’s easy for me to complain about Gordon Brown’s low profile approach, but a French friend tells me that Sarkozy’s government has kept deliberately quiet about the elections, while the German leadership has simply seen the vote as precursor for the September general election.

A just-published poll undertaken for the European Parliament in early May recorded a surprisingly high interest in the elections, so perhaps the turnout will be higher than many fear.  In 2004 the turnout across the Union was 45.7 per cent, part of a steadily declining trend since 1979 when it was 63 per cent. It would be good to see a newly rising level of interest in a parliament which may have greater power and will certainly face tough decisions over the next five years.

Agreement on the future president of the European Commission will be the first challenge for the 736 new MEPs when they take their seats. I’m sure that Barroso is not counting his chickens. No one can predict which eggs will hatch.