European Elections: Centre-right parties set to win control

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SOCIALIST DOMINATION of the European Parliament was swept away last night, with the centre-right on course to become the assembly's biggest party for the first time in 20 years, thanks to the results in Britain and Germany.

As Europe's Christian Democrats claimed an "historic victory", the Social Democrat German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, described the results as a "very clear warning" to the left in Europe.

One of the most striking factors, however, was the turn-out, which marked a new low in voters' enthusiasm for Europe's only directly-elected institution.

The outgoing leader of the centre-right European Peoples' Party, Wilfred Martens, predicted that his group will hold 224 seats in the 626-member assembly, with the Socialists, currently the largest group, dropping to 185.

In a statement, the centre-right group said: "Early results throughout Europe indicate that a historic shift in power is taking place, with substantial gains for the EPP group in Germany and Britain."

The rival socialist group claimed that divisions among the centre-right would preserve their own influence over the parliament. "We will be the only group with a clear vision of the future, around which we are all united", said the socialist leader, Pauline Green.

Of the low number of votes cast, there was no doubting the strength of the centre-right's performance in the UK - where the voting system changes helped - and in Germany, where Mr Schroder's coalition has been in trouble since its election last year.

The centre-right CDU opposition in Germany increased its share of the vote by 10 per cent over the figure in 1994 and won six new seats. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) was expected to be the most successful single party, claiming 25.1 per cent. In Greece, the opposition New Democracy party posted gains too, winning an extra seat with an increase in the vote of more than 4 per cent.

In Britain the upset was dramatic, the Tories overtaking Labour as the biggest British party in Europe. Mr Martens said that he had been assured that the British Conservatives will sit with his group, contrary to some speculation before the poll. "Mr Hague reassured me that his members would be joining us. That would be his order, and if they did not obey that order they would no longer be members of the Conservative party," Mr Martens said.

Despite some big successes, the centre-right recovery was not uniform. In France, the socialist vote increased significantly, delivering an additional six seats to the group. There were smaller increases of nearly 3 per cent in Austria and nearly two per cent in Denmark.

Europe's Liberals also had a successful election, increasing to an estimated 56 seats and benefitting from gains in several countries - including the UK, where a change in the voting system gave the Liberal Democrats eight seats.

Greens scored well in several countries including France where, lead by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, once known as "Danny the Red", they won 9 per cent of the vote. There was also a strong performance in the Netherlands, with three seats gained. Seats were lost in Germany, but the Green share of the vote held up better than expected.

The relative position of the two biggest groups, the socialists and the centre-right European Peoples' Party determine who controls the most important committees in a parliament which will have new and significant powers.

The results have a wider significance because governments in 11 of the 15 EU countries, including Britain, France and Germany, are controlled by parties affiliated to the socialists. The European elections are the first opportunity for the voters the EU to give their verdict on the performance of Europe's new left.

But all the main political groupings acknowledged the biggest disappointment of the election: the low turn-out across the continent, particularly in Britain where just 23 per cent of the public bothered to go to the polls.