Europe's Big Ballot

IT would be overambitious to make too many generalizations from last weekend's vote for the new European Parliament, which in-volved some 5,300 candidates in 12 countries from 200 parties vying for 567 seats. But the voting served as a weather vane for political currents stirring within the European Union members individually and collectively.

Perhaps most significant for the union was the unexpectedly strong vote in Austria in favor of joining. Pre-vote polls had the outcome in doubt; yet Austrians enthusiastically said ``yes'' to membership by a 2-to-1 margin. Whatever the union's struggles - including defining the level of comfort among members with the idea of yielding some sovereignty - the Austrian vote showed the deep appeal the union holds for someone outside looking in. Austria's mood may signal what's to come when Finland, Norway, and Sweden vote later this year.

Depending on whether unaligned new parliament members join with established right- or left-of-center blocs, the parliament may be seen to be moving a bit left or right. No matter. More noteworthy was the lack of success of extremist parties. In Germany, the EU's most crucial member, both the right-wing Republican Party and the Party of Democratic Socialism (for-mer communists) failed to win seats.

As expected, low turnouts and voting for opposition parties registered voter discontent with many governments. But opposition parties were damaged as well. Achille Occhetto of Italy's Democratic Party of the Left resigned after a poorer-than-promised showing. Helmut Kohl and Germany's Christian Democrats were a surprise, doing better than in 1989, a result which may force a rethinking of Kohl's reelection chances in October.

In Britain, Conservatives had pre-arranged damage control by predicting a disaster, perhaps only 10 or 12 seats. They won 18, to Labour's 62. But that spin won't disguise the worst Conservative showing in decades. A prompt cabinet shake-up is almost certain, with John Major vowing in defeat to defend his party leadership against all comers later this year.

As it convenes, the new Euro-parliament will find itself only beginning to wield any true legislative powers. Nonetheless, this vote represents an important milestone as Europeans edge gingerly toward a closer union.

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