Europe struggles to speak with one political voice
Strasbourg, France — Will the first directly elected European Parliament become a new actor on the international political stage? Both the United States and Israel hoped so recently -- and then were forced to reconsider.
Washington was first thrilled and then disappointed -- thrilled when it seemed that the European Community (EC) would back the tough US position on Afghanistan, disappointed when the Europeans decided President Carter had overreacted.
Now Israel faces similar problems in dealing with the nine EC member states. Israelis hoped that the EC Parliament would bring more open discussion of the Mideast situation.
But the new democratic Parliament was effectively "outvoted" on both Afghanistan and Israel -- apparently by the French government in each case.
The French led and eventually won the fight against a boycott of the Moscow Olympics and against tougher anti-Soviet trade sanctions.
Now French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing has come out in support of Palestinian self-determination. And the rest of Europe appears to be following the French lead once again.
Members of the European Parliament generally are disappointed by these two latest examples of European policy originating from behind closed doors in national capitals, rather than being worked out collectively.
But the Euro-parliamentarians certainly haven't abandoned their effort to create a single voice of Europe -- an effort they feel that all Western governments should find natural to support and that has claimed some modest gains here in Strasbourg.
The Parliament's impressive building itself provides a clue to the changes taking place here, in a fascinating city which long ago learned to be both French and German and now is learning to be even more multinational.
Like a fountain of sparkling water, great arches of laminated wood spring from behind the speaker's platform in the European Community Parliament chamber.
The arches curve high above the heads of the 410 members of the Parliament.
The different hues of the countless pieces fitted together in the curving beams overhead give an effect of flowing movement and flexibility.
There's a similar effect on the chamber floor. The sweeping circle of seats mixes together the traditions, languages, and temperaments of the British, French, West Germans, Italians, Irish, Dutch, Danes, Belgians, and Luxembourgeois.
Only a generation ago, these people were divided into warring nations. Now they sit shoulder to shoulder.
The members have divided themselves into eight broad political groups, ranging from the Communists and Socialists on the speaker's left, through the Christian Democrats in the center, flanked by the Gaullist Progressive Democrats and the conservative European Democratic group, to the (confusingly named) Liberal and Democratic group which sits and votes on the extreme right.
The emergence of these new all-European political parties itself is an important sign of the change in European politics. The Parliament's political groups offer an unprecedented opportunity for building party platforms on the basis of truly European rather than national interests.
The mix of nations and the development of a truly international political alliance is strengthened further through the Parliament's 15 committees. These meet for two weeks every month in Brussels and then report during Parliament's monthly plenary session on their areas of specialization such as agriculture, budgets, energy, or external relations.
Not only outside the Parliament but in some corners inside, there are doubts about whether bringing these members together for one week each month in worth the tremendous effort.
Some critics see the Parliament's power as far to restricted -- or its political goal of speaking for Europe as a whole as far too ambitious.
The Communist members regularly charge that the Parliament is simply voicing the prejudices of Western governments rather than representing public opinion.
But the 44 Communists here are not only outvoted, but frequently outshouted by the 113 Socialists, who form the largest group in the EC Parliament.
Thanks to the broad concensus among members here that the Parliament has an increasingly vital role to play in running Europe, the lates session used its limited powers and time to good effect.
As the banks of simultaneous translators in their glass booths overlooking the chamber raced to match the parliamentarians' pace, the Parliament began work on a new EC budget for 1980, pledged help for Cambodia, urged an Olympics boycott, and in general took at least a quick glance at important issues affecting every part of the world.
Frustrations are obvious, particularly in the case of their new EC budget. The session brought basic agreement between the Parliament and the EC's Commission on the budget -- but the terms agreed to here by the EC Commission and the Parliament must next go before the EC's Council of Ministers where national governments and national interests are in control.
Yet the mood is not one of frustration, but of hope and determination. This became clear from talking to men here -- and as well to some of the women who make up a full 20 percent of the membership.
This is a new breed of European politicians who are for most part either new to politics or have given up politics at the national levelto devoted themselves full time to Europe.
For determined young Belgian Socialist Anne-Marie Lizin, the role of the EC Parliament is clear: "We must control what the government ministers are doing in the [EC] Council in the names of their individual countries, without taking into account the European interests of their countries . . . . What is changing is the fact that now they must answer to politicians here who represent European interests."
Dutch conservative Hans Nord sits on the far right as a member of the Liberal group -- but shares Mrs. Lizin's view that Parliament can lead in what they both see as a long and difficult battle to unify Europe.
Mr. Nord defines the major problem as the national governments "still thinking in purely national terms, seeing the European Community as an alliance in which some of their national aims may be more easily attained."
A progressively strengthened Parliament will be able to give governments and public opinion "a European dimension in their political thinking," according to Mr. Nord, who in this battle has support from within all the groups making up the first directly elected European Parliament.