The continuing expenses scandal in Britain has cast a long shadow over Thursday’s European election. Three weeks of allegations, accusations and excuses have created an atmosphere of apathy among British voters, with many people not just sceptical of Europe, but of politicians in general.
“I think they are totally shameful in their behaviour and the sooner they all resign and we get a new government here the better,” said one lady. “So European elections are way down the list for me, I won’t be voting.” Britain’s poor recent record of political involvement is expected to mean another low turnout, and many of those who bother to vote at all may well support fringe or special interest parties. “That might lead to a lower-than-usual poll,” said Professor Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics. “On the other hand, people might say: ‘I am going to show them, I am going to give them a bloody nose, I’ll vote for the opposition perhaps, or the Liberal Democrats or possibly for one of the very small parties’ which, precisely because they are small and haven’t had a great deal of electoral success, can be seen, wrongly, as different from everyone else.” In the poisonous atmosphere, the EU may end up as the scapegoat. The current loathing of the UK’s traditional political elite is a heaven-sent chance for anti-European groups like the far-right British National Party or the anti-European UK Independence Party. “Well I’m going to try UKIP because I’m very disappointed,” said one woman. “I’ve always voted Conservative, all my life, I was always brought up to vote Conservative.” Euro MPs have not yet been overwhelmed by the expenses tidal wave, but they may yet suffer the effects of voters’ increasing disillusion. “Well, if those in power are even one tier further up than your national government, and are in a place which you can regard as foreign – Europe, Brussels – then perhaps you get a rather heightened level of scepticism,” said Professor Barker. For many Britons, there is a deep-held antagonism to what’s seen as Brussels’ interference in UK life. The current financial crisis has merely hardened that feeling. “I will vote, but my personal opinion is ‘let’s get out of Europe, let’s stand on our own two feet, because we’re sick and tired of hearing what Brussels is doing to us’,” said one market trader. Britons cast their votes on Thursday. Five years ago only 39 per cent bothered. Whatever happens this week, it seems the UK is unlikely to tick the box saying ‘More power to Europe.’