PARIS — Thirty years ago a handful of ecology-minded activists threw themselves into the European political fray and succeeded, over time, in turning what had been radical environmental demands into mainstream, conventional concerns.
Now the Greens are going against the grain again. Even as Europe flounders in its search for cohesion, and Europeans retreat further into their national identities, 32 Green parties have founded the first pan-European political party with a transnational election platform and continental reach.
The goal, says Monica Frassoni, cochairwoman of the European Parliament's Green members, is to create a genuinely European electorate for the first time. With parliamentary elections set for June, she says, "we see a space for European politics to become more autonomous from national politics."
They are pursuing this dream at a difficult time, for the Greens are less likely than any other group to win new seats from the 10 new European Union members joining in May. Though environmental problems are enormous in the post-Communist countries that make up the bulk of the new entrants, most of their citizens are more concerned with prosperity than with pollution.
The Greens are launching their election campaign with a psychological boost, however. In Latvia, former Environment Minister Indulis Emsis has just become the world's first Green prime minister, appointed by the president to break a political deadlock.
Nowhere else in Europe do the Greens hold such a senior post, and their support rarely rises above 10 percent in national elections. But they enjoy visibility beyond their numbers through leaders such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 uprising in Paris and now probably the best-known European Parliament member, and Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister.
Many grass-roots members appear ambivalent about whether they even want to be in government, preferring the freedom to remain true to their principles as thorns in the side of authority. The French Green party, for instance, grew bitter at being ignored as a junior partner in the last Socialist-led government.
At the conference in Rome 10 days ago where the new European party was founded, Mr. Fischer fustigated such dilettantism. "It is all well and good to be on the right side of history, but that means nothing if history follows the wrong path," he told some 1,300 delegates from 29 countries.
"Beautiful ideas are all very well, but we must fight for power; it is a challenge."
The new party is a step in that direction, Ms. Frassoni says. "We founded it because we want to win elections," she says. The question is whether European voters are ready for a continent-wide party. Recent EU opinion polls show that less than half of EU citizens now believe that their country's membership in the Union is a good thing, and turnout in European Parliament elections has fallen every time they have been held, to just 49 percent in 1999.
"Since Europe does not deliver, people have lost confidence in it," argues Frassoni. "But one of the reasons why Europe cannot get its act together and be really united is that people think in national terms.
"We have to show that Europe works, and to do that we need instruments," she adds. "A European party will be a very good instrument."
Though European socialists, conservatives, and liberals are also banding into formal continentwide parties to take advantage of new EU funding for such groups, the Greens may be best suited for such an approach, analysts say, if only because the sort of environmental issues that move their voters - such as renewable energy and genetically modified food - transcend national borders.
"As Europe becomes more politically divided, parties that appeal to narrowly defined constituencies will grow in popularity and power," suggests a recent report by Stratfor, a US political consultancy group. "Narrow-issue parties will be among the few that can overcome national politics."
The task will not be easy. European Green parties are divided among themselves on fundamental issues such as how much power national governments should cede to EU bodies: The German Greens are federally minded, while the British and Scandinavian parties are more 'Euroskeptic.' The Danish Green party refused even to sign the common electoral platform.
Green leaders insist that their new formation merely reflects the goal set by the proposed EU Constitution - of "unity and diversity." And in the European Parliament, "When you look at our voting record we are the most coherent of all the groups," says Green deputy chairman Pierre Jonckheer.
At the last European Parliament elections, the Greens won 38 of the 625 seats, and they do not expect to win many more. But to maximize their appeal, they have drawn up a "back to basics" manifesto that focuses on core Green issues, while skirting divisive questions such as defense.
Campaigning as a single party, says Frassoni, the Greens will be able to get their message across more clearly. "People close to the Greens are particularly sensitive to the fact that to regulate environmental issues or to control globalization you need a hard core of power," she argues. That power must be Europe and it must be visible."