European Elections: The reason why your vote really matters: The European Parliament is only as powerful as its electors, writes Sarah Lambert in Brussels. So, whatever your opinion of Europe, you must cast your vote on 9 June

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Indy Politics
THE European Parliament is an over-paid, under-worked talking shop with no real powers and there is no point in voting in the European elections next month. Right?

No. It may once have been true, but no longer. Mockery of the European Parliament has frequently been over-done but was, until the mid-1980s, partly deserved. From overseas junkets to barmy recommendations, the assembly seemed determined to confirm, and even out-do, the tabloid caricatures.

Much has changed since then but public impressions lag behind. Opinion polls held in the UK in the run-up to the elections on 9-12 June suggest that few people know who, or what, they are supposed to be voting for. If they do turn out, the motivation will be domestic, not European politics.

In British terms, the election is a vital test: it may determine the Prime Minister's future. But there is much else at stake. The Parliament is slowly transforming itself into an effective, and increasingly powerful, democratic voice at the centre of the otherwise undemocratic and often baffling European political machinery.

Whatever the political or philosophical debate, Britain is now totally enmeshed in Europe. The abolition of trade barriers has increased the volume of legislation that is binding on all 12 member countries. Environmental and consumer protection, trade, energy transmission, telecommunications, transport networks, cannot be contained by national frontiers. The free movement of people and the continued pressure of immigration mean that health and crime are no longer purely domestic problems. European countries, irrespective of their membership of the European Monetary System, are economically intertwined.

Increasingly, the laws and policies which directly shape British and other European lives are being fashioned by institutions outside the direct control of national parliaments. This development can only partly be attributed to the alleged federal machinations of the European Commission in Brussels. Although Mr Delors' Commission has the power to initiate legislation, it can do nothing without the approval of the Council of Ministers (effectively the 12 member-governments). The European Parliament - which must be consulted and now has the power to introduce amendments - is the only democratic bulwark against these two forces.

As a supra-national body elected on the basis of 12 different systems with MEPs representing 12 different political cultures, it is not cohesive and certainly does not function as the government of Europe. Its powers are strictly limited, its organisation sometimes chaotic. But, at its best, it works as a sort of cross-party, trans-national coalition, injecting common-sense and a little of the popular will into the often fantastic compromises achieved in the smoke-filled early hours in Brussels.

Party discipline means less here than in national parliaments; Socialists and Christian Democrats often find their similarities greater than their differences. 'I feel liberated here, I can vote the way I like or put forward points of view that might be heresy to London and there is no sense of political sanction for stepping away from the party line; we debate things on merit,' says Michael Hindley (Lab, Lancashire South).

Too easily derided as an expensive talking shop, it is the very talking that makes the Parliament useful. It would be wrong to underestimate its powers of scrutiny and oversight; indeed, the most important work, technical amendments to technical legislation that affects the quality of life of all EU citizens, is mostly done in committee.

Take a simple example: parliament's efforts to restrict the emission of toxic exhaust fumes from small cars. The legislation had important implications for the auto- industry. The issue was pollution v profit.

The European Commission wanted to cut existing emission limits by half; EU governments were split. Some, including Britain, wanted somehat laxer, dirtier limits. The Parliament insisted on even higher standards than Brussels originally proposed. Under EU rules the Council could only overthrow Strasbourg's version by unanimous decision. Acceptance only required a qualified majority. The result: the Parliament's cleaner limit was adopted and is now part and parcel of national law.

It may not make national headlines; it has none of the drama of debates on Bosnia or whether there should be trade sanctions to punish China's continued abuse of human rights. But with childhood asthma and respiratory disease on the increase (and car pollution widely blamed) it was a small step towards cleaner air - a step that had to be taken at European level if it was to be effective.

Under the Maastricht treaty, the European Parliament's powers of oversight are increased. New procedures give MEPs the opportunity to demand second readings of proposed bills - a stalling tactic that enhances the possibilities to amend legislation. It will in this way be able to query policy in fields such as health, education, consumer protection, freedom of movement, services, the mutual recognition of qualifications, and the environment.

Strasbourg's powers of approval in the appointment of the European Commission (and of the Ombudsman, who will be the public watchdog against Commission abuses) are also strengthened. Parliament will also have the right to set up temporary committees of inquiry.

In some respects the parliament is more representative than national assemblies; there are, for example, 101 woman MEPs. At a fifth of the total, it is still not nearly enough, but a better percentage than Westminster. The French Socialists have this year pledged to name alternate men/women on their list, which means that the European Parliament post-1994 should welcome such names as Elizabeth Guigou - a former European Affairs Minister. At the end of the day, the Parliament is only as powerful as its electors. Its potential for greater influence is a function of its perceived public support. Whatever your opinion of Europe - or John Major - vote, vote, vote on 9 June.