Leading Article: A vote against those in power

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ADEFINING feature of parliamentary democracy is that governments are formed from among those who have been elected. One reason for the generally low turnout in the European elections, notably in this country, is that no government will emerge from the ranks of those sent to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Although its muscle was considerably increased by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the parliament still ranks third among the three main institutions of the European Union. Broadly speaking, the Council of Ministers takes the decisions. The Commission has a near- monopoly of the power to put forward policy proposals. Parliament's role was originally largely consultative. But under the Single European Act of 1986 it acquired powers to amend certain legislation: almost half of its proposals have been adopted. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 extended this power, adding the right to veto in certain fields. Maastricht also enabled MEPs to approve the new President of the Commission.

Yet because voters still feel their lives will be only marginally affected by the Strasbourg parliament's decisions, the election campaign focused on national rather than European issues. The election thus became a form of referendum on national governments, rather than a vote on different views of Europe's future.

That in turn explains the leftward shift in the overall voting pattern. Conservative or Christian Democratic governments are in power in most of the larger member states, including Britain, Germany, France and Italy, and in several smaller ones. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, socialism was seen to have gone too far in expanding the welfare state, raising taxes and conceding power to trade unions. The resulting swing to the right made cutting taxes and state spending the new orthodoxy. In the ensuing political as well as economic restructuring, socialist parties embraced free-market economics and moved towards the centre.

With unemployment, drugs, crime and other social issues moving up the agenda, it is now governing conservatives who seem unable to adapt to the new realities. These European elections suggest that another swing of the political pendulum impends, towards a very centrist form of social democracy, accelerated in this country by the election of Tony Blair to lead the Labour Party.

The Conservatives must now come to terms with the root cause of their performance. To overcome the deep divisions over Europe within the party, they fought a campaign that was essentially negative. The last European elections in 1989 showed how unfruitful that was likely to be. And so it has proved again. Even in the immediate aftermath of D-Day, there was little mention of the role of European integration in maintaining peace in western Europe for almost half a century. For their lack of generosity and failure of imagination the Conservatives have now received their just reward.