Votes for European Parliament seen as local referendums

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The campaign for one of the world's biggest parliamentary elections is under way in 10 European states. This unusual election is taking place amid the enthusiastic fervor of politicians and parties but general public apathy.

At stake are 434 seats for five-year terms in the Parliament of the European Community.

The voting among the 270 million residents of the 10 EC member countries on June 14 to 17 is being seen as a major test of the credibility of the Parliament and the entire EC. But in many member countries, the furious campaigning is regarded more as a referendum or public opinion poll on the popularity of the local government and the opposition parties.

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Such partisan parochialism in France, for instance, caused the Paris daily Le Monde to remark last week, ''There is little that is European in the European election campaign.''

In the Netherlands there is concern that the balloting might become an unofficial referendum on the controversial deployment of US nuclear missiles there.

And a recent speech on German television by Bavarian Christian Social Union leader Franz Josef Strauss had all the makings of a traditional attack on the German Social Democratic Party.

In little Luxembourg the EC election is being combined with a local parliamentary one.

Another characteristic is the widespread public apathy about the international campaign. A recent poll in Britain indicated that only 13 percent of those questioned were aware of the forthcoming election.

Another poll conducted by the EC itself in the 10 countries showed some 62 percent intended to vote, about the same level as five years ago.

Only 36 percent in Britain were so inclined, while 80 or 90 percent were in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece.

A survey of the press in several EC states in recent days reveals the pervasiveness of the lack of interest.

A headline on the election in London's Economist magazine noted ''Britain snores.'' The Irish Independent spoke of ''apathy'' in that country.

And the Brussels daily Le Soir commented that the campaign for the European Parliament elections ''has not yet really begun'' even though politicians and parties have been pasting up posters and making impassioned statements for weeks.

But in his farewell speech to the last session of the Parliament in Strasbourg, the outgoing president of the body, Pieter Dankert, reflected the anxiety of many about the public unconcern when he said the infant Parliament might not survive into the 1990s if it did not get more political power.

''We still have not established a real identity for the essential contact with the public,'' he complained.

''We can be held responsible only if we have some real responsibility,'' the Dutch Socialist leader explained. This power struggle among the various institutions of the European Community has been at the root of the Parliament's frustrating existence as well as the public lethargy.

Most of the true power and legislative authority in the EC is in the hands of the Council of Ministers, where the national governments exercise virtual veto power over all proposals drafted by the executive Commission in Brussels and reviewed by the Parliament.

The Parliament's only real, if circumscribed, power is to entirely reject the annual joint EC budget or dismiss the whole 14-member Commission.

In fact, in its first elected term of office and under Mr. Dankert's leadership, the Parliament has made full use of this budgetary leverage to force the Council of Ministers to accept changes and reforms in the controversial farm-dominated EC budget.

But for the most part, most members and officials agree, the week-long sessions that are held once a month in the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg as well as the committee meetings in Brussels have been dominated by wide-ranging but largely futile debates and pronouncements.

Since the Parliament's resolutions outside the budgetary field are only advisory, they in fact carry little weight with the other EC institutions.

This month's final session before the election was somewhat typical. The debates ranged from the religious movement of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and unleaded gasoline to the war in the Persian Gulf and the plight of Andrei Sakharov.

Such debates frequently split members away from national allegiances into international alliances based on the members' political ideologies. There were 124 Socialists in this Parliament, and 117 Christian Democrats. These two leading parties jostled for majorities on votes for the various resolutions.

They sought support from the 63 British Conserva-tives, 48 Communists, 38 liberals, or 22 French Gaullists, with right-of-center coalitions frequently gaining the upper hand.

But even in the face of such institutional futility and public apathy, thousands of would-be officeholders from all these major parties and numerous splinter groups are campaigning.

Five years ago candidates who were well-known internationally such as Willy Brandt, Enrico Berlinguer, or Jacques Chirac campaigned and were elected, then made only token appearances at the sessions.

This year, fewer stars are on the parties' lists of candidates.

Also, in contrast to the first election five years ago when the pioneer candidates and some voters were enthusiastic about the possible role of the Parliament, they are confronted this year with frustration at its modest advisory role in a troubled EC.

Many experts are therefore wondering whether the polling in mid-June will attract anywhere near the 116 million persons who voted in 1979.

And whatever the ultimate number is, there will be considerable speculation as to whether they were voting for a candidate or party for the Parliament or merely for or against their national government.

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