European Elections: Ever closer union is looking less attractive to voters: Uncertainty about Euro-federalism is eating away at the electorate, writes Leonard Doyle, West Europe Editor

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Indy Politics
AN anti-federalist mood is growing in Europe that could alter the balance of power in the next European Parliament. The irony is that the first elections under the 'Citizenship of the Union' provisions of the Maastricht treaty could end up slowing the moves to 'ever closer union'.

Euro-sceptic British Tories and the growing ranks of fellow travellers in Europe are not about to win a numerical majority in the next Parliament - far from it. But disillusionment has set in among a sizeable percentage of the EU's 255 million citizens; doubts and uncertainties about the brave new world of Euro-federalism are gnawing away at the electorate. Instead of galvanising voters for the challenges ahead, Maastricht has created a jagged fault-line in European politics and the elections should tell a lot about the way people feel about the experiment.

The pain involved in ratifying Maastricht revealed how politicians across Europe were losing touch with voters. Coupled with the failure of the EU to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia or end the cycle of recession and unemployment, scepticism on the merits of Euro-federalism has taken hold. If voters intend to send any clear message in the elections, the polls suggest that it will be to dampen the ardour of the Euro-romantics who want to build a United States of Europe. More than grandiose plans for a new world power, the electorate seems to want jobs, economic prosperity and strict limits on immigration, all without diluting the power of national governments.

Voters are expected to turn out in small numbers, the most derisory turn-out of all being in Britain, where in 1979 only 36.2 per cent bothered to vote. Those who do vote generally do so for national rather than European reasons, but even so the results will have EU-wide consequences.

In Britain, the election is bound to become a referendum on John Major's future, but the results could tip the balance for several parties in Strasbourg.

The Labour Party is due to increase its seats from 49 possibly to 60, ensuring that it dominates even more the largest EU parliamentary group, the European Socialists. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats, who have never had a popularly elected MEP, are due to win four or five seats. They will then be an important force in the European liberal group. At the same time, this group is expected to lose seats overall as the Portuguese Social Democrats leave to join the European People's Party (EPP). Meanwhile the Italian liberals are expected to collapse and the German liberals, the FDP, may not even make it to the new Parliament.

In bald terms, the new parliament should have a clear Socialist majority, with as many as 220 members compared with the present 197 and an agenda that focuses on unemployment and the environment. Though still committed to a federal Europe, the Socialist group dominated by the UK Labour Party has come to realise that calling for more federalism is not the vote-winner it once was.

The main opposition, the European People's Party - predominantly Christian Democratic and Euro-enthusiastic - is expected to undergo the greatest change of all and to see its vision of a 'federal government' for Europe watered down as voter scepticism works its way through the system. Just how strong a force the centre-right group will be depends on many factors. How badly the Tories do, for a start. An alliance of Tories, Gaullists and a new crop of Italians from the ruling coalition party, Forza Italia, could form an influential group within or around the EPP. The main objective of this would be to put a brake on further EU 'deepening'.

Julie Smith, author of a new study for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Citizen's Europe, the European Elections and the Role of the European Parliament, predicts that the coming elections 'stand to alter the party balance in parliament very significantly'.

In Spain, the ruling Socialists - federalists to the bone - are about to be trounced. Corruption scandals in the ruling Socialist PSOE have given a boost to the opposition Popular Party (PP) and the EU enlargement has caused anxieties about Spain's position.

Germany has always embraced the federal agenda but the EU paymaster is now facing popular doubts about the loss of national sovereignty and even the disappearance of the mark in a future monetary union.

In Belgium, important changes are occurring, with people expressing hostility to more shifts in power to the EU. They could send a strong message to politicians by voting for the extreme-right Vlaams Bloc, or for the Greens who resent the proliferation of EU institutions in their capital.

In France, the polls are expected to be a trial of strength before the 1995 Presidential election. The ruling centre-right Gaullists (the RPR) and the UDF have put up a joint list and have declared that they will sit together in Strasbourg in the EPP party.