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Free scooter rides and EU power ballads, big firms pump up voters for EU polls

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags flutter as people take part in the demonstration "One Europe for all", a rally against nationalism across the European Union, in Vienna, Austria, May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - From Volkswagen to Spotify to Iberdrola, Europe's biggest firms are urging people to vote in key European Parliament elections this weekend amid concerns that an anti-EU outcome could disrupt their business and hurt their bottom line. 

The unusual step of mixing politics with business is also echoed by some U.S companies, and a senior Microsoft executive in Germany has encouraged staff to go to the polls.

Nearly 430 million Europeans are eligible to vote in the May 23-26 election but turnout has been in decline, hitting just 43 percent in 2014. Parliament itself is pushing hard, notably on social media, to get people to vote - its 3-minute YouTube video featuring newborn babies has been viewed 34 million times.

The stakes are higher this time, though, with the rise of populists, eurosceptics and far-right parties posing a threat to the EU's democratic values. Latest figures showed that these disparate groups are set to increase their share of seats at the expense of the mainstream groups.


PROTECTING THE SINGLE MARKET

Germany's Volkswagen, the world's largest carmaker which makes half of its sales in Europe, has appealed in 16 languages to its 490,000 European employees to cast their vote, saying that a united Europe is in everybody's interests.

To promote its campaign "Volkswagen Votes for Europe", the company has unfurled a huge banner with the slogan on its Wolfsburg plant, one of the world's biggest factories.

"The single European market, cross-border trading and freedom of movement for specialists and the exchange of knowledge are essential prerequisites for our competitiveness," the company said in a statement.

"However, a united Europe is more than all that. It has brought the continent freedom and prosperity following centuries of bloody wars and disputes."

German carrier Lufthansa has painted its new global brand campaign "SayYesToEurope" on the fuselage of an Airbus A320.

German engineering giant ThyssenKrupp has issued a series of brightly coloured posters and a tagline "Europe is us". "What's the point of having self-driving cars if they have to stop at every border?" one poster said.

The corporate activity is not restricted to Germany, where the pre-EU heritage of war is particularly keenly felt and whose manufacturers are notable beneficiaries of open markets.

World No. 1 music streaming service Spotify of Sweden is hoping its millions of users will get vocal at the polls and has drawn up a playlist of top local artists from the 28 EU countries to showcase the bloc's diversity.

With a presence across the EU, the company said it made sense for it to promote voter engagement in the EU elections.


SHADOW OF BREXIT

Spanish energy producer Iberdrola had a similar message. Writing in German newspaper Handelsblatt last month, CEO Ignacio Galan said only a more united Europe could provide prosperity and security to its 500 million citizens.

U.S. industrial conglomerate 3M said American companies also have a fundamental interest in a "strong and open" Europe. It has posted three videos on YouTube, featuring leading EU party candidates, to encourage its 18,000 employees in the bloc to vote.

"This is the best way to provide a stable return on investment, and consequently to attract investment and create jobs," said Maxime Bureau, 3M's Government Affairs Director in Brussels.

He said a weakening of the EU that could follow from a loss of voter participation posed a risk to that.

"We support democracy. We are saying 'do what you want – but be active'," Bureau said.

While Microsoft has not issued any statement on the elections, its managing director for Germany Sabine Bendiek has taken to Twitter and Linkedin to urge voter turnout in the interest of a strong EU economy and a socially balanced policy.

U.S. e-scooter company Lime is doing its share by giving people free rides to polling stations on election day in 12 EU countries.

New corporate interest could be a byproduct of Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU, said Fabian Zuleeg, who heads Brussels think-tank the European Policy Centre.

"Companies look at the Brexit referendum and see that the interests of companies did not come out as they hoped. They see that the future of Europe is single market cooperation," he said.

While the corporate push will affect only a small number of people, it underlines a growing business awareness of the wider political environment.

"We have to recognise we live in a democracy and all actors have a role to pay. It is a good thing that companies are taking their responsibilities seriously and campaigning for people to go and vote."


(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, and Mark Bendeich in Rome; editing by Gareth Jones)