Mice that would not roar get a scent of real power

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The Independent Online
'WHERE'S the big idea?' asked Ken Collins plaintively. His colleagues nodded agreement, muttering unhappy comments. The European Parliament was in one of its difficult moods, and Jacques Delors was on the receiving end.

But the parliament proved itself to be the mouse that didn't roar. The occasion for its revolt was Mr Delors' presentation of the Commission's work programme for the year, a sort of King's speech to parliament. The natives were restless, and threatened to withhold a vote of confidence. There was even a whisper that they might use their ultimate power and sack the whole Commission.

The problem, as noted by Mr Collins, MEP for Strathclyde East and a leading light in the Socialist Group, was that the Commission has run out of steam. Under attack from member states, fearful of provoking new rows, it has withdrawn into its shell. Mr Collins, one of the most influential figures in the parliament, had plenty of suggestions.

So did others: the parliament is full of good advice. Mr Delors is not accustomed to being accused of lacking big ideas: the charge most frequently used against him by his opponents at Westminster is that his ideas are rather too big. He looked uncomfortable, shifted in his seat and responded with pleas for understanding. 'I have been prudent for six months . . . was I wrong?' he asked. This penitent attitude did not become him. But in the end, he delivered a powerful speech, analysing the Commission's problems with his usual doleful flair. His occasional hints at compromise with the parliament and at a more aggressive defence of EC interests were enough to buy support from the restive parliamentarians.

The threatened revolt over the vote of confidence never materialised. It would send the wrong signal, said officials, particularly since Mr Delors is under assault from member states. The real enemies - as perceived in Strasbourg - are in the national capitals, not the Commission. MEPs realise that while Mr Delors may be regarded in some countries as a joker, to them 'he is the ace in the pack', as one official put it. Put more crudely, 'they bottled out', said one parliamentarian.

Gesture politics have always been part of the stock-in-trade of Strasbourg, since the institution lacks clout. But the truth is that behind the posturing, the parliament is gearing itself up for the taste of real power. The Maastricht treaty, still hanging in the balance, gives it new rights to participate in the policy-making process. The MEPs are looking forward to this, and the attempted revolt against Mr Delors was one way of showing they are not going to be taken for granted any more. Backing away was, however, supposed to prove that they are responsible enough to be trusted.

The overall message seemed to be that there is still a strong element of contradiction in the parliament. Maastricht is more important for the parliament than any other institution, since it gains a veto over some areas of policy. But it has yet to gain any real power over many things that really matter - foreign affairs, immigration, monetary policy - and hence many MEPs are scathing about the treaty. However, as one official of the parliament noted, 10 years ago nobody would have expected them to get this far.

The rest of the world has started to take notice of Strasbourg's muscle-flexing. Last week the yen rose on financial markets after a Japanese newspaper said the European parliament wanted the currency to remain strong. It should be noted that the Japanese markets make some fairly eccentric judgements. Still, it's a start. Today Strasbourg, tomorrow the world.