Leading Article: Strasbourg needs to fight for power

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The Independent Online
IF PROOF were needed that there is no such thing as European public opinion, the results of the European elections provide it. In no country, except perhaps Britain, are they being interpreted as being in any way a verdict on the government's European policies, let alone a conscious attempt to change the overall political colour of the Strasbourg parliament.

Country by country, the vote was on domestic issues, and in several the impact on the political scene has been striking. At the European level, the chief effect has been to fragment the parties of the right and consolidate the Socialists as the most cohesive, as well as the largest, single grouping. Since Britain's substantially increased Labour Party members now constitute its largest component, their influence will be considerable.

The fragmentation of the right is confusing but significant. Those on the dominant left used to be able to rely on support from 'progressive' Christian Democrats when seeking support to amend legislation on social and environmental issues. The right now has a larger maverick element whose voting tendencies are hard to predict.

A perennial aim of MEPs is to increase their own power in relation to that of the European Commission and Council of Ministers. This can be done only by achieving a high degree of consensus. Additionally, much work is carried out in mixed committees. These two factors tend to reduce the significance of party political boundaries. A first test of MEPs' collective grit will come when they seek to exercise their new right to approve the member states' choice of a new President of the European Commission and his team of commissioners: appointments that should be far more openly debated in a European Union with pretensions to plugging its democratic deficit.

It seems perverse that European elections should have more impact in member states than in the European Parliament itself. The most dramatic outcome was in Germany, where a surge in support for the Christian Democrats boosted Chancellor Kohl's prospects in the October general election.

France's Socialists fared badly, thanks largely to the success of the populist Bernard Tapie's grouping. The government coalition suffered similar damage at the hands of the anti-Maastricht group, for which Sir James Goldsmith was a successful candidate. It is small consolation that many of these mavericks will probably turn up only rarely

in Strasbourg - thus aggravating an already serious problem of absenteeism.

Overall it was a confusing outcome: generally anti-government, but consistent only in the lowness of the turnout. As a barometer of European opinion, these elections have a long way to go.

They will fully engage the public's attention only when MEPs become major players in the government of Europe.