Birth pangs of a parliament

Marci McDonald June 11 1979

Birth pangs of a parliament

Marci McDonald June 11 1979

Birth pangs of a parliament


Marci McDonald

The cast is nothing if not star-studded. The plot line spills over with historic resonance, international intrigue and a cliff-hanger final act. As if that weren’t enough to ensure a knock-’em-dead extravaganza, the producers have poured more than $2.3 million into public drum-beating. But this week, as the campaign for the first directly elected parliament in the 21-year history of the European community winds toward its denouement at the ballot boxes June 7 and 10, the atmosphere in the nine member countries is something less than electrified. Although the 410 MPs elected to the new Euro-parliament will represent the world’s largest democratic voting unit—and a potentially forceful new Euro-power bloc—the reaction of the community’s 259-million population has been what London’s Daily Telegraph described as “Euro-bored.”

In Britain, where the Euro-elections arrive as a thudding anticlimax to last month’s House of Commons race, pundits cheerily predict the lowest voter turnout of any country. While the U.K. lists may sparkle with an assortment of MPs, ex-MPs and titles—including Sir Henry Plumb of the National Farmers Union and Sir David Nicholson, the former chairman of British Airways, for the Tories, former Labor minister Barbara Castle and those perennial Northern Irish spotlight-stealers Bernadette Devlin and the Reverend Ian Paisley—the roster appears to have left the populace distinctly undazzled. A recent poll showed that 38 per cent of Britons hadn’t heard of the European parliament, let alone the elections. It is an oversight which some have attributed to the fact that when the information exhibit hit London this spring, the continental-style poster kiosks were frequently mistaken for French pissoirs.

In Italy, the Euro-vote has been thoroughly upstaged by this week’s general elections. In Denmark, even a dynamic campaign by one party against the country’s very membership in the Common Market has failed to jostle the public out of its Euro-torpor. In West Germany, where former chancellor Willy Brandt is leading the Social Democrats’ slate and Bavarian right winger Josef Strauss the Christian Social Union’s, one pollster has predicted that a mere 30 per cent of the electorate may straggle out to cast their ballots.

All Germany’s parties are resoundingly pro-Europe, and the campaign so far has been so short on issues that the biggest tempest blew up over the candidacy of Otto von Habsburg, the 66-yearold son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor. The wrenlike former archduke has shown himself so unrepentantly right-wing in interviews and essays that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was moved personally to protest that his election would discredit the entire fabric of West German democracy.

Only in France have the elections managed to work the political activists into a frenzy—a fact which may delight President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who proposed them in the first place five years ago. Nevertheless, the current haranguing may not be quite what Giscard had in mind. With French politics neatly quartered into four factions, each party is using the balloting as a weather vane for the presidential elections in 1981. Gaullist chief Jacques Chirac, Socialist leader François Mitterrand and Communist czar Georges Marchais are personally leading their troops into the fray, gaily slinging hash at each other and their common enemy: Simone Veil, the graceful 51-year-old French minister of health whom Giscard appointed to lead his centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) lists. Not only is she the country’s most popular politician, but polls show that her slate stands to harvest the most votes, pushing it out ahead of the Socialists as the leading party.

With so much at stake, the French

campaign has produced some bitter fireworks and strange bedfellows. Chirac, who was prime minister when France agreed to the direct elections, is nevertheless calling his Gaullists to arms with the dire warning that French sovereignty will be gobbled up by a monster he likes to refer to as “Germano-American Europe.” That thinly veiled anti-German rallying call has left him in the bizarre position of siding with the Communists, the very red peril he customarily rails against, and it has not helped his own cause. After boldly declaring the vote as a referendum on the government’s economic policies— and posturing that less than 50-percent support would challenge Giscard’s legitimacy as president-^he promptly found that his own party was scoring lowest in the polls.

With the Breton Nationalists, the usual leftand right-wing splinter groups and even celebrities JeanJacques Servan-Schreiber and Françoise Giroud, the co-founders of the newsmagazine LExpress, fielding their own candidates, the elections have been nothing if not lively. But as polls are only now beginning to show, the rhetorical sound and fury of the politicians is leaving the voters yawning.

Indeed, as the French campaign points up, there has been a distinct lack of pan-European issues. It is both an irony and a disappointment. Not only does the community share such current

Who wil cal the tune?


Electorate: 2 million Seats contested: 15 Voting: June 7 Government: right

United Kingdom:

Electorate: 41 million Seats contested: 81 Voting: June 7 Government: right


Electorate: 200,000 Seats contested: 6 Voting: June 10 Government: centre-left coalition


Electorate: 6.5million Seats contested: 24 Voting: June 10 Government*: centre-left coalition



41.5 million Seats contested: 81 Voting: June 10 Government: right


Electorate: 10 million Seats contested: 25 Voting: June 7 Government: centre-right coalition


Electorate^.5 million Seats contested: 10 Voting: June 7 Government: left-centre coalition


Electorate: 35 million Seats contested: 81 Voting: June 10 Government: centre-right coalition

West Germany:

Electorate: 42 million Seats contested: 81 Voting: June 10 Government: left-centre coalition

problems as nuclear progress, energy dependence and agricultural policies, but the need to breathe new life into the post-war ideal of a strong and united Europe was the very reason for reviving the idea of direct elections.

When the six founding nations signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to create the community, they endorsed a parliament, a court and a bureaucracy as the basic institutions of the confederation they hoped to forge. But the politicians of the day, led by Charles de Gaulle, were suspicious of visions that went beyond their own borders. They tethered the Euro-dream to the hitching post of a 198-member, appointed parliament, which turned

into little more than a debating society in Strasbourg and a powerful, Brusselsbased technocracy which has mushroomed to even greater potency: 13 commissioners manage the creaking weight of the administrative machinery, and while their decisions must be debated by parliament and approved by the Council of (foreign) Ministers, it has not always been an easy balance. While the member countries resent the power of the commission, the commission resents the veto-power of the ministers and both sides now hope that an elected parliament will redress the balance in their favor.

So the question of the parliament’s powers is a crucial one. At this point, its

influence will be mainly psychological.

The Treaty of Rome permits it only to voice its views on EEC laws, fire the commission and amend the budget, currently $16 billion. But those rights may, after all, be considerable. Last December, to everyone’s surprise, the outgoing Euro-MPs flexed their muscles and passed a budget for $800 million more than the Council of Ministers had approved, provoking the biggest crisis in the EEC’s 21-year history. The parliament’s German chairman, Erwin Lange, explained: “We had a duty to hand over the rights we acquired intact to our successors.”

No one dare guess at present, however, how these rights will be exercised, such will be the confusion of political allegiances in the new parliament. The Socialists, the best organized party, are expected to pull off the largest majority with the Christian Democrats in second place. But the prospects of some unlikely marriages are already being raised. Britain’s Tories disdain the German and Italian Christian Democrats; the Italian Christian Democrats don’t want to share benches with Strauss’s Christian Social Union and Britain’s Labor party is a reluctant bedfellow of the continental Socialists.

Nor are the problems the new parliament faces easy ones. As the community welcomed Greece’s entry last week and prepares to expand to an even dozen with Spain and Portugal’s membership, the fears of farmers and trade unionists about cheap competition and labor are sure to be inflamed.

Still, whatever the difficulties, Veil believes, as do Giscard and Schmidt, that a stronger Europe is the only an-

swer to the looming threat of the Soviet Union on one side and the United States’ abdication of its role as a political and economic leader of the West on the other. Says Veil: “One can never be sure of the outcome. But we can be sure that if we don’t build Europe, it will be catastrophic for us.” With greater urgency she is paraphrasing the doctrine of her compatriot, Jean Monnet, the community’s chief visionary and founding father who died last March. “The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present,” he warned in his 1976 memoirs. “And the European Community itself is only a stage on the way to the organized world of tomorrow.”