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1 April 2004 Edition

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EU elections come into their own

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

Wanted, articulate advocate of the right, conservative views with racist, anti-worker undercurrents desirable, expensive business dress style a must, to run as European Parliamentary candidate for the Progressive Democrats

Yes, it's election time again and with party conferences in full swing, political parties across the island are sharpening their candidates, getting the posters and leaflets ready for the printers.

The first All-Ireland elections for five years are shaping up to be critical ones, not just because they might give pointers to the state of play within unionism in the Six Counties, or show Sinn Féin has consolidated its position as the leading nationalist party, or perhaps even provide 26-County voters with a chance to give judgment on another two years of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government. For the first time, they are also about European and international issues.

A new political battleground is opening up in Europe. It is characterised by issues such as the war in Iraq, EU-driven economic policies and the new EU constitution.

What is most interesting is that this Europeanism of political attitudes is voter-led. The recent elections in Spain and last weekend in France clearly demonstrated this. In France, the socialist, communist and green parties won 50% of the vote and control of most of France's 26 regional councils.

One the key issues was months of dissent among workers about the economic policies of the right-wing UMP. French government attempts to cut public spending and erode welfare services have been met with street protests and industrial disputes and now with substantial voter opposition at the polls.

By saying no to welfare and spending cuts, the French voters were also delivering a judgment on the economic policy platform of the EU itself which, through the Lisbon Agenda as well as the Stability and Growth Pact, is an advocate of privatisation, cutbacks and spending constraint.

In Britain, where voter turnout in the 1999 EU election fell to 24%, European issues are taking control of the EU agenda. In the aftermath of last week's EU summit, where EU leaders agreed to intensify efforts to reach agreement on a new EU treaty, Tony Blair will face pressure from all parties to agree to hold a referendum on any new constitution.

It used to be that international politics would be dominated by behind closed doors deals made by member state governments and this is still often the case. This week, the German government is backing British efforts to allow them to opt out from enforcing a maximum 48-hour working week. It seems that Germany has now decided that the 'Social Europe' is not that desirable after all.

However, EU voters are now finding their feet and it could be that the surprise results in Spain and France are just part of a greater dissatisfaction, not just with national governments but how they are acting on international issues.

The war in Iraq, Muslims wearing head scarves in French schools, even the new smoking ban in Ireland, have become not just national but international issues. Last year, literally millions of people took to the streets of European cities to protest about the war in Iraq. This year, it seems they are going to use the polls to express grievances.

From a domestic point of view against this international backdrop, the dilemmas of the Progressive Democrats are all the more interesting. They didn't contest the 1999 EU elections, their strongest candidate, Pat Cox, sitting MEP and president of the parliament, left the party nearly ten years ago. For a party that would see itself as centred in a modern 'post-national' Europe, their failure to contest EU elections is baffling.

This week, Progressive Democrat Justice minister Michael McDowell took to the airwaves searching for any prospective candidates to contact the party.

While we could list the possible candidates, McDowell is missing the obvious choice - himself.

McDowell has been leading a vicious campaign against Sinn Féin for months now, with no evidence to back up his allegations. Then there are his controversial referendum proposals on citizenship.

If he really thinks that he is the arbiter of all that is good in Irish society and even on who is or isn't Irish, maybe he should put his own name forward for not just Dublin but all the EU constituencies on the island. Then he will see how much support there is for his flawed platform, or is democracy across the island one step too far for Michael?

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