Conservatives Score Continent-Wide Wins in Socialist European Union

Conservatives score wins in EU parliament votingConstant Brand - Associated Press Writer - 6/8/2009 7:25:00 AM

BRUSSELS - Conservative parties hailed European Parliament election victories as a continent-wide vote for their approaches to the economic crisis and pledged Monday to forge ahead.

Conservative-leaning governments came out ahead in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, while conservative opposition parties won in Britain and Spain. (See earlier story)

Many Socialists ran campaigns that slammed center-right leaders for failing to rein in financial markets and spend enough to stimulate faltering economies. But voters did not embrace their cause.

"The center-right has been addressing the economic crisis," said Sara Hagemann, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. "The center-left parties failed to sell that message."

Voters angry over poor economic conditions and political scandals punished ruling parties of both stripes in Greece, Austria, Spain, Britain, Bulgaria, Ireland, Hungary and the tiny island of Malta.

And the June 4-7 elections which ended Sunday across the 27-nation bloc saw only 43 percent of 375 million eligible voters cast ballots for representatives to the 736-seat EU legislature. The record low turnout pointed to enduring voter apathy about the European Union.

It was a discouraging sign for EU officials hoping Irish voters will approve stronger powers for the EU in a fall referendum.

European Commission President Manuel Barroso blamed politicians across the European Union.

"National politicians, whose debates all too often remain largely national in their focus, must acknowledge themselves more consistently as both national and European actors," he said. The European Union said center-right parties were expected to take the most seats - 267. Center-left parties were headed for 159. Green and pro-EU parties captured 51 seats, while far-right and anti-EU parties won around 40 seats. The remainder went to smaller groupings.

Reeling from an expenses scandal, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's center-left Labour party finished third behind the anti-European U.K. Independence Party - a crushing defeat that cast more doubt on Brown's future. The Conservatives are expected to win Britain's next national elections.

The vote also saw the all-white British National Party pick up two seats in the EU assembly - joining far-right parties from the Netherlands, Hungary and Austria that excoriated Muslims, immigrants and minorities.

Voters in Italy handed a tepid win to scandal-plagued Premier Silvio Berlusconi and rewarded the anti-immigrant party in his coalition. The 72-year-old billionaire media mogul spent much of the campaign fighting off his wife's allegations of an improper relationship with an 18-year-old model.

Germans handed a lackluster victory to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives but a historic defeat to their center-left rivals, a result that comes only months before Germany holds its own national election.

"We are the force that is acting level-headedly and correctly in this financial and economic crisis," said Volker Kauder, the leader of Merkel's party in the German parliament.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservatives trounced the Socialists, while an ecology-minded party vaulted to a surprisingly strong third place.

"We will continue to modernize France," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said, vowing to loosen France's labor rules to make the country more competitive internationally.

"Tonight is a very difficult evening for Socialists in many nations in Europe," admitted Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the European parliament.

Austria's big winner was the rightist Freedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13.1 percent of the vote. It campaigned on an anti-Islam platform.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic party took 17 percent of the country's votes, winning four of 25 seats.

Three of 22 seats in Hungary went to the far-right Jobbik party, which describes itself as Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration. Critics say the party is racist and anti-Semitic.

The EU parliament has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws. Lawmakers get five-year terms and residents vote for lawmakers from their own countries.

The assembly's increasingly influential lawmaking affects issues ranging from climate change to cell-phone roaming charges.

The parliament can also amend the EU budget - euro120 billion ($170 billion) this year - and approves candidates for the European Commission, the EU administration and the board of the European Central Bank.