WORLD

A vote without feeling

The elections for the European Parliament painfully revealed its underlying weaknesses and lack of real force

Marci McDonald June 25 1984
WORLD

A vote without feeling

The elections for the European Parliament painfully revealed its underlying weaknesses and lack of real force

Marci McDonald June 25 1984

A vote without feeling

WORLD

Marci McDonald

The elections for the European Parliament painfully revealed its underlying weaknesses and lack of real force

The European Parliament is an ineffectual symbol, occasionally full of sound and fury but ultimately signifying little. In Britain, three-quarters of the electorate told pollsters that it had no influence on their country. In Germany 20 per cent of voters claimed that they did not even know of its existence. Concluded the Italian daily Corriere della Sera: “The European Parliament is a pure phantom.” Still, European politicians nervously awaited the outcome of last week’s voting for the 434-seat parliament in Strasbourg . The reason: in each of the European Community’s 10 capitals, the balloting had become a key referendum on domestic political performances.

In France the 1,134 candidates contesting 81 seats treated the vote as the last plebiscite on President François Mitterrand’s Socialist regime before the 1986 legislative elections. The president’s popularity is at an all-time low, and the Socialists were braced for a severe setback after three years in pow-

er even before the campaign opened. And the government feared that major losses would set a defeatist tone that could carry over into the next general election.

As a result, the Socialists’ coalition ally, Communist Party leader Georges

Marchais, predicted a cabinet shuffle after the vote to give the government a new look. According to Marchais, a more centrist candidate will replace Pierre Mauroy as prime minister, and Mitterrand will probably reduce the number of Communists in his cabinet—in preparation for doing without them altogether.

For their part, the Communists spent most of the campaign trying to win the

support of businessmen and influential middle-class figures, in an attempt to expand the party’s dwindling electoral base. Indeed, if the party does not finish above the 14-per-cent total predicted by pollsters in the European vote, the Communists may abandon their role in government altogether and replace Marchais as leader.

At the same time, the French opposition, led by Simone Veil, the first president of the European Parliament, has been weakened since Veil’s neo-Gaullist partners forced her to accept controversial press baron Robert Hersant on her list of candidates for the voting. Nine former Resistance fighters published a full-page letter in the daily Le matin de Paris declaring that Veil, a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, had compromised her prestige by her association with Hersant, whose antiSemitism and past collaboration with the German occupation forces have been fully documented. For millionaire Hersant, owner of Le Figaro and France Soir newspapers, a Strasbourg seat would mean immunity from charges

pending under the country’s press monopoly laws. But the spoiler of the contest was right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose vitriolic anti-immigration platform siphoned off support from both right and left. His rallies provoked violence across the country. Only hours before he was scheduled to speak in the southwestern city of Toulouse, a bomb destroyed the meeting hall.

In Britain balloting offered the first test of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s wavering popularity since her general election landslide a year ago. The Conservatives were prepared to lose at least 10 seats as part of a general drift to the left in most West European countries other than France. But the fledgling Social Democratic/Liberal Alliance was a distant third in the polls. Still, it was the Labour Party that was in the most awkward position: vigorous-

ly campaigning to win seats—and prestige—in an institution that it wanted Britain to leave as recently as last year. Its Euromanifesto was vague on the issue of continued membership, recommending approval for an option to withdraw when the new parliamentary term ends in five years. But the Conservatives contended that only six of Labour’s candidates were in favor of Britain remaining in the community.

Still, the issue that dominated the campaign in Britain was a three-monthold miners’ strike which has become increasingly violent, with indications that Thatcher has secretly intervened in

the dispute. In West Germany 14 parties contested 81 seats, but most attention focused on one of the groups, the Free Democrats, led by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Polls predicted that the Free Democrats would fail to secure the five per cent of votes needed for representation. That would threaten the party’s role as the junior partner in the government coalition just as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s dominant Christian Democrats are grappling with the country’s worst strike in six years by metal and print workers. The government has also recently suffered an embarrassing defeat of a tax amnesty bill and may face a graver crisis still if, as expected, the Bonn prosecutor decides to go ahead with the trial of Economics Minister Count Otto Lambsdorff on bribery charges. Lambsdorff is a Free Democrat, and his resignation could further undermine the coalition.

But the domestic stakes in the voting were highest in Greece. Indeed, few disagreed that the level of rhetoric and violence had reached dangerous levels. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou’s governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement fought to avoid heavy losses to the opposition conservatives which might lead President Konstantin Karamanlis to dissolve parliament and call early elections. To avoid any such development, Papandreou promptly declared that “a vote for the right is a vote for the forces of darkness.” The campaign was also punctuated by numerous violent clashes.

In Italy the sudden death of Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer increased pressure on all parties to use the outcome of the vote as a means of renegotiating their share of power in the government. But the election failed to capture voters’ attention, despite the star names on some ballots. Among them: novelist Alberto Moravia, running as an independent Communist; two women, both named Anita Garibaldi, both claiming descent from the 19th-century hero of Italian unity; and television personality Enso Tortora. He campaigned—from the Milan apartment where he has been under house arrest since last year for ties to the Naples mafia—against what he described as the corruption of Italian justice. Only in Denmark did voters show any significant interest in the issue of Europe itself: at least three parties campaigned to take the country out of the community.

Debates within the community over the size of Britain’s budget rebate and much-needed reforms for the Common Agricultural Policy are partly responsible for the apathy among the nations and voters. Efforts to protect national interests, have paralysed the EC and they are striving to find a compromise before the next summit at Fontainebleau, near Paris, later this month. But the lack of interest in the European Parliament is also due to its reputation as a $270-million debating society noted for marathon examination of such strange issues as European bathwater.

EC member governments refuse to give the parliament more than limited powers, such as the ability to veto the budget and fire the powerful European Commission. Indeed, outgoing president Pieter Dankert declared that if the institution does not gain more authority before the next election in 1989, it should be dismantled. Said Dankert: “We can be held responsible only if we have some real responsibilities.”

But as the current campaign demonstrated, the European Parliament is trapped in a particularly difficult dilemma. On the one hand, it cannot win voter support if it remains impotent. On the other, governments have no reason to transform it into a powerful forum if the public continues to ignore it.