Greens within grasp of power take Europe by storm'

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WHEN AN old acquaintance met Joschka Fischer recently, after a gap of more than a decade, the body language betrayed shock at the transition of the once radical German Green into a besuited government minister.

Unfazed, Mr Fischer made direct eye contact, gave a strong handshake and explained: "Those seemed the right arguments then, these seem the right answers now. Times move on".

So they do, and with them move the aspirations of the Greens, so long the Cinderella of European politics.

Mr Fischer, who this week visited London as Germany's Foreign minister, is the most potent symbol that, at last, real power is within their grasp. Juan Behrendt, secretary general for the 27-strong group of Green deputies in the European Parliament, believes that the movement can "paint Europe green" because, crucially, four European environment ministers are now Greens (those of France, Germany, Italy and Finland).

That means that when the EU council of ministers sits down to make laws on the environment, Greens will have an enormous influence on the outcome. "It is now possible that we will be in a position to organise majorities in favour of taxes on energy and pollution," Mr Behrendt claims.

Germany has been the main opponent of energy taxation but that could be about to change, particularly if the new administration decides that green taxes are the most politically-acceptable way of funding job creation.

And, as of January next year, German Green Jurgen Trittin will chair the council of environment ministers in Brussels. He and his colleagues have a long list of objectives: curbs on industry, tougher laws governing beaches, habitats, protection of wildlife, air and water quality, and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy to place greater emphasis on environmental aims. Global issues are at stake, with Greens set to obstruct EU efforts to license genetically-modified food, potentially provoking conflict with the United States.

No stranger to grand rhetoric Daniel Cohn-Bendit, better known as "Danny the Red" from his days as leader of student protest in Paris in May 1968, was quoted by the French press this week declaring triumphantly: "Greens are going to take Europe by storm."

His own fortunes are on the rise. As a German citizen Mr Cohn-Bendit has been sitting in the European Parliament for their Greens.

Now he has been selected to head the Green list in France for the 1999 European Parliament elections, a move which could kick-start a Green renaissance in France where the party has been beset by crippling infighting. The ground had been prepared by the last elections which brought the Greens into government when Dominique Voynet took the environment portfolio.

Apart from holding government jobs in France and Germany, the Greens have won themselves places in ruling coalitions in Italy and Finland and have seats in parliament in 12 of the 15 member states of the EU.

In Belgium, the Greens never tainted by power, have benefited from their links with the "White" movement, formed in the wake of the Dutroux child- sex scandals.

They are seen to be above the corruption and linguistic quarrelling which is endemic in the traditional parties.

Green MPs dominated the "untouchables" - the committee of MPs who carried out a year-long inquiry into the police's handling of the Dutroux investigations.

Naturally it is not all good news, because part of the appeal of the Greens is the very lack of professionalism which has also been their handicap. For most green parties the traditional power structure is anathema and "speakers" are appointed instead of leaders.

Nor are Green presentational skills always up to New Labour standards.

The British television presenter David Icke took the Greens dramatically off message when he claimed that he was on a mission from God.

The image of the former European Commissioner and leading Italian Green, Carlo Ripa di Meana, took a battering when his wife, Marina, wrote a memoir detailing the location of her sexual exploits over a period of 40 years.

In fact there is no dramatic greenward electoral shift even in Germany, where - despite winning three ministerial posts - their share of the vote actually dropped from 1994's 7.3 per cent to 6.7 per cent.

In Bonn, they are divided between the realists like Mr Fischer, and the "fundis" - the fundamentalists. For the moment the so-called "Gucci Greens" are very much in the ascendancy, but the discourse varies sharply from country to country and a clear North/South division is evident.

Greens in Scandinavia tend to be vehemently mistrustful of the EU while the French and Italians are pro-EU.

Irish Green MEPs led the "no" campaign in this year's referendum on the Amsterdam Treaty warning voters that the Treaty would undermine Irish neutrality and bring in a European police force which would sweep away civil liberties.

The Green movement is weak and fragmented in the Mediterranean belt of the EU.

There is no national party structure in Spain, although there is strong regional support for Green candidates on environmental and women's issues.

A Spanish Green list will be presented to voters for the first time in 1999.

And then there is Britain, which can boast no Green MPs or MEPs. In the Euro elections of 1989 the party polled 15 per cent of the vote in what turned out to be a false dawn brought about by the Liberal/SDP split and the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher.

Despite the backing of personalities such as Sir Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, the Greens have failed to capture the public imagination.

New opportunities ought to be on the horizon with more proportionate systems for elections to Strasbourg, and to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

But the threshold which parties have to pass to win a seat in the "top- up" list seems likely to exclude the Greens again.

A recent Mori poll puts them at just 1 per cent of the vote and Bob Worcester, its chairman, argues:

"Their prospects next year are grim. That 15 per cent was an aberration accounted for not by a surge of support but because they were the most convenient dustbin vote."

All of which means that we should expect not an electoral surge but a revolution from - of all places - within the political establishment. "It will" as one former campaigner put it, "be about important changes of emphasis within the bureaucracy, about shifts in the balance of power."

Already, the prospect is being taken seriously.

One British multi-national recently asked for an expert briefing and received the following advice: count on the Greens being a force for at least the next four years.