BRUSSELS: On the eve of European Parliament elections, the EU's executive on Wednesday opened its wallet wide, offering member states euro19 billion ($27 billion) to combat a surge in unemployment amid the recession.
EU rules require countries getting social funds from the EU to match these with money from their own coffers. But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the recession was so severe the EU is forgoing the rule.
"Europe took swift action to respond to the financial and economic crisis," he said. "The Commission is taking a further step toward shared commitment and coordinated action ... to save and create jobs." The euro19 billion for social spending projects in 2009 and 2010 was announced on the eve of four days of voting for a new European Parliament.
Many eyes will be on voter turnout, which has been sinking in EU elections - from 62 percent in 1979 to under 46 percent in 2004.
Another drop will be seen as a blow to efforts in recent years to reverse 'EU fatigue' - the waning public interest in European institutions which became palpable in recent years as the EU took in Malta, Cyprus and 10 East European neighbors.
That "big bang" expansion has been used by small but vocal EU-critical parties to show how out of touch the EU is with its 500 million citizens.
Speaking to reporters, Barroso said his "most important concern is unemployment" adding the euro19 billion in social spending was "a concrete example of how Europe can make a difference" to the 21 million unemployed across the EU.
The jobless rate in the 16 nations using the euro surged to 9.2 percent in April, the highest level in a decade. Unemployment across all 27 EU countries rose to 8.6 percent in April, from 8.4 percent in March.
Barroso appealed to Europeans to vote in the EU elections in large numbers. "People have a right to vote. Please go out and vote," he added.
The elections start Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands. The other 25 nations follow in the following days with most voting on Sunday.
On Wednesday there was even a plea from outer space to European voters.
Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne, who arrived this week at the International Space Station, beamed a message calling on fellow Europeans to vote in the European elections saying his six-month mission aboard the ISS showed "what Europeans can achieve when all they work together." De Winne - the first European Space Agency astronaut to command the permanently manned ISS, from October until his return to Earth in November - said he has "arranged to vote by proxy ... I hope you will also vote, wherever you are and whatever political views you have." He was launched last week from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.