Left-wing parties set to sweep the board in European elections

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The Independent Online
SOCIALISTS will dominate the European Parliament after the June elections, with the parties of the centre-right losing seats and facing political fragmentation, according to MEPs and parliament officials.

They expect the Party of European Socialists to win some 210 seats, up from 198. The European People's Party, the right-of-centre grouping with which the Conservatives are linked and the second-largest bloc, is likely to fall to about 130 seats from 160. The number of seats in the new Parliament will rise from 518 to 567, to reflect German unification.

Just five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, with frequent claims that the European left was in crisis and terminal decline, the socialist and social democrat parties of Europe are staging a resurgence. In Britain, rejection of the government should give Labour a strong showing; in Germany, the opposition SPD will gain ground; and in Italy, though the traditional Socialist party (the PSI) has collapsed, the social democratic PDSI and the former Communists in the PDS are expected to do well.

The largest national political group in the next Parliament will again be the British Labour Party, which is expected to provide around 60 of the PES's members - nearly a third, and about 10 per cent of the total MEPs. This reflects the Conservative government's unpopularity, and the first-past-the-post system.

But the Socialists' expected dominance has as much to do with the fragmentation of Europe's centre and right-wing parties as with any great triumph for the Socialists. The European People's Party, the main centre grouping and the hinge of political power in the Parliament, is likely to have a grim time at the polls. In Italy the Christian Democrat party is defunct following two years of scandal and corruption. In Germany, both the Christian Social Union and the Christian Democrats are declining, and in Britain the Conservatives are expected to be reduced to a rump of between 15 and 25 seats.

Of the four big EU countries, only in France is the right expected to do well - but it is divided. The neo-Gaullist RPR, which has formed a single list with the centre-right UDF, is to the right of the Christian Democrats. It is pledged to join the EPP but several neo-Gaullists are now saying this is out of the question.

There is also a question- mark over the Italian right. Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia has had talks with the EPP, but also with the Liberal Democrat and Reformist Group (LDR). Umberto Bossi's Northern League has also talked to the LDR but may form the nucleus of a new, regionalist group. Regionalist groupings from Belgium and Spain are also expected to win more seats, the Scottish Nationalists may add another member, making two, and Plaid Cymru may win a seat.

The Liberal Democrat Group also has a confused outlook. It could end up with anywhere between 30 and 80 seats, depending on which parties join or leave. Bernard Tapie, the former French soccer boss who heads the party list for the left-radical MRG, is said to be sounding out the possibility of a new group.

The weakening of the Christian Democrats will have important consequences, since its ideology has been crucial to European integration. 'It is the mainstay of the European idea,' says Professor Gordon Smith of the London School of Economics. 'This will be a litmus test for Europe.' But with no majority, the Socialists will still have to depend on the Christian Democrats for support.