Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A journey into the EU elections

As the European parliamentary elections approach, BBC Scotland's David Miller is crossing the continent to examine some of the big issues in the campaign from a uniquely Scottish perspective.

He will be reporting for Good Morning Scotland from Bucharest, Naples, Paris, Helsinki and Berlin.

SATURDAY - BUCHAREST

Twenty years ago, Romania was a communist dictatorship.

International travel was virtually impossible for anyone other than the political elite and top sports stars.

The street lamps had no light bulbs. And if you wanted to enjoy a glass of Scotch whisky, you had to buy it on the black market.

Today, Romania is one the newest members of the European Union and a member of NATO too. The flags of Romania, the EU and NATO fly from every public building.

The pace of political change has been dizzying but there's been an economic and social revolution too.

The collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime in December 1989 led to a period of unprecedented turmoil and opportunity, as Romania raced to embrace the free market and, now, the single market too.

Florin Talpes is typical of the new generation of Romanian business leaders who has exploited those opportunities to the full.

It's been a long, hard slog but today his software company employs hundreds of staff around the world.

Sitting in his offices in a gleaming tower block on the northern outskirts of Bucharest, Mr Talpes tells me Romania has used its scientific and technical expertise, built up during the communist era, to develop new products and services which are being sold across the European Union.

“ Western-style prosperity may have become a reality for many in Bucharest but for the peasants living in villages beyond the city limits, life has changed very little ” 

He says: "Hi-tech is one of the cards which Romania will play. That's because we have very strong skills, a very strong education system, a very strong research school. All of these joined together are a very good bet."

Romanian companies may be enjoying access to the single market, but a huge amount of work remains to be done.

Minutes after leaving Mr Talpes at his office building, I see a goat herd carefully guiding her animals along a dual carriageway, past garages selling luxury cars.

This is a country of stark contrasts.

Western-style prosperity may have become a reality for many in Bucharest but for the peasants living in villages beyond the city limits, life has changed very little.

I visited one of those villages and heard from local people about what they wanted the European Union to do for them.

As they tended their fields by hand, they spoke of their ambitions. Asphalt for the roads. New tools. Perhaps even a tractor.

Social change

The European Union has agreed to pour billions into Romania. The money is to be spent improving the country's poor infrastructure and helping to lift the most vulnerable out of poverty.

But critics say bureaucracy and corruption have slowed the flow of EU aid to a trickle.

There are fears the European cash may be frozen entirely until the Romanian government puts its house in order.

Membership of the European Union has meant more than political and economic change for the people of this country. It has brought social change too.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a couple of hundred people have gathered on a wide boulevard close to Ceau?escu's Palace, still seen here as a symbol of his oppressive regime.

The crowd has gathered to take part in Bucharest's annual gay pride march. The streets have been closed, riot police are on standby. Water cannon are parked a short distance away.

In the old days, the marchers would have been arrested and jailed. Today, the police are here to protect them in case of attack by counter-demonstrators.

Changed times indeed.

In the crowd, I spot a well-known face. It's Michael Cashman, once an EastEnders actor, now an MEP and an outspoken advocate of gay rights.

He tells me Romania's membership of the EU must be about much more than access to the single market.

"When you join the European Union, it's not just a market. It's a market with a whole set of social values. Top of that agenda is equality, fairness and justice."

There seems little doubt that Romania's membership of the European Union has brought profound changes to this country. Many of those changes have been popular, some less so.

Interest in the European elections is higher here than in other member states.

Some analysts expect that to change as the novelty wears off and Romanians grow tired of European politics.

I'm not so sure. Here's an alternative theory.

Perhaps those who've had to fight for their democratic rights simply value them more highly than those of us who were lucky enough to be born with the right to vote.

That might be worth thinking about on 4 June.

THE JOURNEY AHEAD

Excited about the European elections? It's a fairly safe bet to assume your answer to that question was "no".

And it's an equally safe bet to assume that you are firmly in the majority - pollsters across the European Union report that levels of apathy are high and the turnout between 4 and 7 June is expected to be low. In fact, the turnout could be the lowest ever.

It's understandable and predictable. Politicians at Holyrood and Westminster may worry about how to "connect" with voters. But for their counterparts in Brussels and Strasbourg, the challenges are even greater.

It seems that we know we should be interested in European politics. But we aren't. It's a bit like eating spinach or flossing your teeth.

The latest Eurobarometer survey suggests 53% of EU citizens are "somewhat" or "very" disinterested in the elections. Worse still, only 34%t told the pollsters they would probably vote.

Professor John Peterson is Head of Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

He puts it like this: "I have heard it said that an American presidential election is like a world cup final.

A British general election is like an FA cup final, and a European Parliament election is like a Tuesday night kick around in the park."

Ouch.

But make no mistake. The European elections are a little more complicated than deciding whose jumpers to use to mark out the goals.

About 375 million people across the 27 member states are eligible to vote. They'll elect 736 MEPs who will be chosen from about 9,000 candidates.

Perhaps those big numbers help explain why voters may feel "disconnected" from their elected representatives in Brussels.

Prof Peterson says: "It's the world's only multi-national, multi-lingual, directly-elected parliament.

It's very hard to explain to people exactly what MEPs do, how their vote actually translates into a change in Europe in terms of political power."

I'm sure Professor Peterson is right, but I am going to give it a go. First stop, Romania.

Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride. But I promise I'll be doing my best to make sure this journey is anything but boring.

Good Morning Scotland is broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland, weekdays from 0600 to 0900 BST.

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