EC Commissioner dismayed at predicted low turnout for European Parliament elections

Gunther Verheugen, photo: CTK

Gunther Verheugen, who played a key role in negotiating the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union as EU commissioner for Enlargement, paid a flying visit to the Czech capital on Thursday. During the week of the Czech Republic's first ever elections to the European Parliament, Mr Verheugen who is now Commissioner for the European Neighbourhood Policy was in Prague to give a speech on the challenges and opportunities that confronted the new enlarged EU.

Gunther Verheugen,  photo: CTK
Given that Mr Verheugen played such a large part in arranging the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union when he was EU Commissioner for Enlargement, it was hardly surprising that he expressed some dismay at the low turnout that is expected for the country's first ever elections to the European Parliament while he was here.

So what does he think is to blame for the high levels of voter apathy in this country?

"This is a question you must ask the Czech politicians. I really have had no opportunity to make a judgement as to whether the campaign in the Czech Republic was exciting or not. In principle, I can only say that we have been seeing declining figures here in the EU for decades. There is only one answer for this. It is obvious that for a majority of European citizens the European institutions are too far away and too remote. The whole system is not transparent enough. In my view, national leaders and national politicians have a strong responsibility to make it clear that a democratic system like the European Union cannot function if the most important element in a democracy is missing - the participation of its citizens."

Opinion polls suggest that the low turnout may be advantageous to some radical candidates, whose more galvanised supporters will still come out and vote. This could result in some fringe elements being elected to the European Parliament. Does Mr Verheugen believe that a motley crew of politically unskilled deputies in the EU Parliament could undermine the entire European project?

"Certainly, yes. I must say that I am really worried that everywhere - it's not the specific problem on one member state - low turnout can produce very strange election results. In some countries, there's even a danger that anti-European formations and anti-EU groupings could win sufficient support to have representatives in the European Parliament. That is certainly not in the interest of the majority of the people. The only way to avoid this is for the ordinary citizen to show up and spend thirty minutes casting his vote. I strongly urge all European citizens in every member state, especially the new member states, to make use of the most important right of every citizen and that is the right to vote."

One of the challenges facing the new enlarged EU, identified by Mr Verheugen, was the adoption of a new EU constitution, which has been a source of much heated debate and even rancour between some member states.

In view of this, why does Mr Verheugen think an EU constitution is actually necessary?

"I think a politically developed system like the European Union needs a clear and transparent 'founding document'. Of course, we are not without a constitution but that constitution is enshrined in the existing treaties and is very difficult to understand and very cumbersome. Now what we will have is a document that is accessible and which people can understand. It is a constitution that will make the whole system more democratic, more transparent and certainly more effective. Therefore I think it's worth having."