Not such a trivial pursuit after all

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IS THIS an election, or is it a phoney election? Yesterday the main parties launched their campaigns, issued manifestos, unveiled slogans, avoided journalists' questions and accused one another of lying. It was a little like the opening day of a general election campaign. Something, though, was missing. It was almost as if everyone was going through the motions, engaging in some elaborate but lifeless charade.

And yet, by most possible yardsticks, this campaign ought to be jumpingly alive. 'This is not some trivial opinion poll. It is an election about issues of real importance,' said John Major, rightly. The outcome won't be trivial for the European Parliament, a body with substantial new powers whose overall balance may well be decided by the British results.

Nor is this campaign a trivial matter for the parties themselves. It could accelerate the Liberal Democrat bandwagon. It offers the would-be Labour leaders their best opportunity to show form. And, of course, it is not trivial for the Conservative leader: Mr Major may find his words quoted back at him. Third in the European campaign? Nothing trivial about that.

Nor can one argue that voters have no real choice. There are differences between the parties. Mr Major's nationalist rhetoric sounds like the old game: be a sophisticated European for the chattering classes, and strut your patriotic stuff for the mob. More substantially, Douglas Hurd's evolving vision of a 'multi-speed Europe', in which different nations combine for different purposes, is a long way from the Opposition's more conventional thinking. True, most candidates will be vaguely pro-European: but for the substantial minority of voters who are deeply hostile to the Union, in 24 seats there will be the UK Independence Party.

Big issues, real choices. Is it, then, that the campaign is taking place at a dull time for the European project? Hardly. The original vision of the Union is being attacked across the continent. Offshore, the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, has cooled about the exchange rate mechanism. Labour sans Smith is throwing up rhetorical ramparts of defensive patriotism. Even the Liberal Democrats are banging on about the desirability of a referendum on any further strengthening of the Union. Whether all this is just a passing symptom of recession or an historic turning-point remains unclear. But something is clearly happening to the self-confidence of the elites.

So, to sum up: here is an election that will have a big impact on the EU's main democratic institution; which may decide the future leadership of the two biggest British political parties; which offers voters real choices; and which takes place at an important time in the continent's political history.

But yesterday's torpid campaigning didn't feel like History. No politician was on song. Journalists pottered off afterwards with expressions of mild boredom, to write or record reports for customers who are ignorant of European politics and happy to remain so. In a poll published by the Daily Express, a huge 85 per cent were unable to name their MEP. Challenged to name any member of the European Parliament, Leon Brittan and Barbara Castle were most frequently cited (neither is).

If the previous three European elections are anything to go by, this national ignorance will be followed by an abysmal turnout. In 1989, out of an electorate of some 43 million, just 6 million people bothered to vote for Labour candidates and over 5 million for Tory ones. If things haven't changed much, then around 28 million sane, adult, commoner Britons will react to this early-summer festival of democracy by ignoring it.

This raises the question of who votes, and how representative they are of the country. Many will be simply registering a protest about increased taxes or their fear of redundancy. Of those who vote on European issues, it seems likely that the fanatically anti-European, and the passionately federalist will be more heavily represented than the calm, cud-chewing masses of middle Britain. It will bear roughly the same relation to a proper general election as a gaggle of trainspotters does to the crowd on platform 19.

Why? The truth is surely that the European Parliament, and indeed the European Union, are still remote from the lives of British people. The institutions seem far away, their relationships abstruse, their language jargon-filled. Their effects are pervasive, but come upon us softly and slowly. Maastricht, and the complex inter-government machine that it created, is harder to understand than what went before. And Mr Hurd's Europe of 'variable geometry' would be harder still.

The problem with this campaign is that it is founded upon a political oxymoron: the specialist democracy. Ordinary, plain democracy requires a link between the act of voting and some observable result that is clear enough to convince the public that participation is worthwhile. It needs issues and institutions that are simple enough to be discussed in clear language. These tests are fundamental, not trivial; and today's European Union fails them.

For pro-Europeans, the great prize is to democratise it, to simplify the institutions and their functions so that most people can understand them, and to ensure that the directly elected bits control the unelected bits. It would need what Paddy Ashdown yesterday called a new settlement of powers. That could result in less being done by the centre. But it is a clearly federalist project that would require courage and seriousness. Some hope. Thus far, we have been fed a diet of posturing by democratic politicians who mostly don't want to create a European democracy. The voting may be real enough, but the campaign's phoney.