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Big themes missing from EU vote

Apathy surrounds European Parliament election

From CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

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Crowds gathered last month across Europe to celebrate EU enlargement.
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- When the "Ode to Joy" rang out in Dublin, Ireland to welcome 10 new nations to the European Union last month, there was an overwhelming sense of political and economic optimism.

Now, as the expanded EU prepares to go to the polls for the first time, much of the enthusiasm appears to have faded.

More than 350 million people in 25 countries are eligible to vote for the 732 members of the European Parliament over a four-day stretch, beginning Thursday.

But many EU diplomats concede that this election has been plagued by widespread voter apathy.

One of the problems, they say, is the Parliament's expenses system -- a source of much criticism for questionable perks and privileges.

"People exploit an existing system which is very generous and they do so within the rules. The rules need to be changed. We are all agreed on that," says Dermot Scott, director of the UK office of the European Parliament.

Then there is the fact that the Parliament does not have a single, permanent base.

"We would dearly love to sort it out. The Parliament has voted again and again to meet in one place," says Scott. "Our problem is that it is in the treaties that the Parliament must meet in Strasbourg, whereas all its work is done in Brussels."

The election also has failed to produce a specific European theme.

"Most of the party campaigns that we're seeing at the moment are based on national issues and really have very little to do with Europe at all," says Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform.

Winners or losers in the vote

As for the politicians themselves, experts do not expect an easy ride for British Prime Minister Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi, his Italian counterpart -- both of whom backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

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EU flags outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France

"In Italy, the Iraq issue is going to play the most where there's a clear difference between government and opposition, rather like there was in the last Spanish election," says Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics.

This does not necessarily mean an easier ride for anti-war politicians like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac

Both Schroeder and Chirac sparked huge anti-government demonstrations in response to their efforts to bring in reforms to jump-start sluggish economies.

"Chirac and Schroeder will probably do quite badly in the elections, but not because of Iraq," says Hix. "These are mid-term contests in these countries. They're both quite unpopular governments."

In Poland, a backlash against the pain of preparing for EU membership is boosting the Eurosceptic Self Defence party.

And in Britain, pollsters say the United Kingdom Independence Party -- which wants the country to leave the EU -- is also advancing.


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