ENVIRONMENTAL parties are expected to score big in this week's vote for the European Parliament. From Italy to Britain, more ``Green'' candidates are on the ballots than ever before. The group is likely to snare more than 20 seats in the 518-member body, up from 11 in the last Parliament.
That may sound small. But in the fragmented politics of Strasbourg, France, where the Parliament is headquartered, it's significant.
The growing clout of European environmentalists reflects changes sweeping the continent. Green issues are shifting to the top of the political agenda in many capitals - including southern member nations of the Economic Community, such as Italy and France, which previously tended to play down environmental concerns.
``In every West European country, except Greece, there are now Greens in local government,'' says Sara Parkin, co-secretary of the European Greens, a group that represents Green parties from 15 European countries, including 11 EC states.
This upsurge is also reflected at the national level - with Greens holding parliamentary seats in five EC countries.
Until recently, however, the Greens tended to ignore Europe-wide politics. Many of the parties had their hands full establishing themselves at home. Besides, the environmentalists considered the Parliament ineffective. (Battling Euro-boredom in Britain, Page 4.)
But that's changing. The European Parliament is now seen as a major avenue for advancing Green causes - especially in the increasingly integrated Western Europe envisioned after 1992. Under the Single European Act of 1987, for example, the Parliament has powers to amend internal market legislation and to block EC treaties with foreign countries.
Indeed, the Community is already attempting to harmonize its laws, including those governing environmental standards. Greens are hoping to establish a firm foothold in Strasbourg, so they can make sure the most stringent environmental laws become the standard throughout the Community.
But the group faces serious internal challenges.
The 11 Greens in the last session of the European Parliament forged a coalition with an assortment of small leftist and regional parties - dubbed the Rainbow Group - that made it difficult to build a strong environmental platform and led to intense bickering among the ranks. Seven of the 11 members were from West Germany, and analysts say the fragmentation of the West German Greens was part of the problem.
``Everybody functioned as an individual - there was very little basis for cooperation,'' says Ms. Parkin.
Activists seek to avoid this problem in the next Parliament. In March, European Greens forged a platform to orient policies after the election.
The anticipated boost in the number of Green deputies should also help. If Greens snare more than 23 seats, they'll find it easier to form their own voting bloc and won't have to resort to rickety coalitions with leftist factions.
Forming a voting group is essential, say parliamentary experts, since it's one of the measures used in allotting money and speaking time on the floor of the Parliament. The Greens would still depend on alliances with other parties - but could focus them on key issues.
This election is also expected to mark an important shift away from West German domination of the Greens in Strasbourg.
The French Greens, for instance, are running a full slate of 81 candidates and expect to gain at least eight seats - their first entry into the European Parliament. Other new seats are expected to be added by West Germany, Belgium, and Italy.
Analysts say this is a turning point. In the past, the smaller Green parties in countries such as Spain depended on the high profile of the West Germans to gain attention for themselves among their own voters. Now, say analysts, the parties are becoming more mature and confident.
Meanwhile, Green policies continue to make inroads among Europe's mainstream politicians.
The most celebrated transformation was that of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who last September seized on the issue of global warming and proclaimed her government committed to environmental concerns. President Fran,cois Mitterrand of France is also carving a place for himself as a born-again environmentalist.
The Greens say they're not worried about having their issue stolen out from under them. Since Mrs. Thatcher's pronouncements last September, for instance, the British Green party has seen its membership jump by 30 percent to 11,000.
Opinion polls in Britain suggest the Greens could poll as high as 10 percent of the total vote in that country's election, putting them well ahead of the traditional No. 3 party, the Social and Liberal Democrats. However, under Britain's system of voting, which lacks the proportional representation used on the continent, the Greens aren't expected to win any seats among the British delegation.