The Strasbourg-Brussels parliament is not a strong assembly. It is bureaucratic, paper-laden, and ideologically incoherent. It still shuttles unproductively between its two sites, and it signally failed to reform its high-speed gravy train in its last session. But it did bring down a complacent, out- of-touch and inefficient European Commission, and the new parliament which will emerge two weeks from today will have greater powers, both formal and moral, to vet Romano Prodi and his new commissioners.
The parliament's law-making powers are still limited, but they are growing. And the parliament is also the most direct channel of democratic accountability for the all-powerful European Central Bank, in that it can require its boss, Wim Duisenberg, to appear before it and explain himself.
For all these reasons, all Europe's citizens should go to the polls on election day. But British citizens have an additional incentive in that theirs will be, as the Liberal Democrats proudly claim, Britain's first nationwide "fair votes" election. For supporters of small parties, for Labour voters in big cities, for Tories in the shires, voting will, for the first time in a national election, be more than a pointless act of affirmation.
Of course, the new system is far from perfect. For one thing, it is far too simple. Voters will only be allowed to vote for a single party with an X. They will be unable to express any preference between parties or between individual candidates. The notion that this form of proportional representation is "too complicated" is nonsense. The ridiculous concertina design of the ballot paper looks like a conspiracy by Jack Straw to bring the new system into disrepute. However, the Government should be given credit for a system that is still a vast improvement on the travesty of democracy that went before. Huge, arbitrary constituencies elected party lists of one, with a strong bias in the overall result in favour of the largest party. Not only will the new system give the Lib Dems fair representation, it will also give parties like the Greens and the Pro- Euro Conservatives the chance of seats.
Together with the votes for the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly, these elections will be a test run for the kind of reformed voting system advocated for the Commons by the Jenkins Commission last year. After this, no one will be able to pretend that PR is "alien", that British voters will not understand it, or that it will produce obviously perverse results. In Scotland and Wales, the outcome was a much fairer reflection of the popular will than would have been obtained under first-past-the-post.
But what of the issues? Paradoxically, the obvious question of European monetary union is not being contested next week, despite the attempt by the breakaway Tories to make it an issue. Britain's adoption of the euro will be decided by the House of Commons and the people in a referendum, not by the European parliament.
The real issues that matter are those of environmental regulation, competition policy, the single market, farm policy and EU enlargement. Over the next 10 days we intend to give our readers the information they need to make an informed choice, without presuming to urge you to cast your vote for a particular party.
But we will urge you to vote. This newspaper is committed to the European Union and wants to see it stronger and more democratic. The most important result of the European elections in Britain is that the turnout should exceed the 36 per cent who voted in 1994.Reuse content