Some 269 million voters are expected to go to the polls this week in 12 European nations and choose among more than 10,000 candidates running for 567 seats in the little publicized but increasingly powerful European Parliament.
The European Parliament is the world's only democratically elected transnational assembly. The election is the first all-European vote since the 1991 passage of the historic Maastsricht treaty, which mandated a common currency and defense policy by the end of the decade. It's also the first time that the people of Denmark, Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, who balloted Thursday, and the people of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Spain, who will ballot Sunday, are voting as official citizens of a united Europe.What's more, the European Parliament - once considered remote and ineffective - has recently been enlarged and strengthened.
Sound like an important election? It certainly does. But that's not the way Europeans are treating it.
Instead of focusing on the election's long-range potential for continuing the momentum to develop a United States of Europe, Europeans are far more concerned about what the voting may say about the short-term popularity of various national leaders. That's because campaigns in nearly all nations have focused on national, rather than Europewide issues.
The most closely watched race on this score is in Britain, where the election results could foreshadow Prime Minister John Major's future in office. Vote-counting in all 12 nations starts Sunday night. If predictions prove correct, Major's Conservative Party could lose two-thirds of its 32 seats to the opposition Labor and Liberal Democrat parties. In that case, Major could come under strong pressure to resign.
All across Europe, in fact, the latest polls indicate the largest bloc of seats in the European Parliament going to left-wing parties. So Washington had better be prepared to see its European allies shift on a variety of policies.
But because voters' moods and preferences can and do swing from election to election, the focus should be not just on the immediate impact of this week's voting but on its implications for the future. On this score, the emphasis should be on efforts to keep strengthening the transnational parliament as a means of furthering European cooperation and unification.
Already the European Parliament is a far cry from its modest beginnings in the early 1950's as a toothless consultative arm of the European Coal and Steel Community. Today it presides over the $80 billion budget of the 12-nation European Union. Since the Maastricht treaty took effect last November, the parliament shares decisionmaking authority with the EU Council over such matters as education, the environment, and consumer affairs. The parliament also has won the right to review and veto key appointments to the European Union's executive commission. And it can reject prospective new member-states, a power that is becoming increasingly important as former satellites of the Soviet Union start to apply for membership in the European Union.
So far, so good. But more is needed. Also in order eventually for the trans-national parliament is authority to introduce its own bills plus stronger voice in defense and foreign policy matters.
Full unity won't come until the citizens of all 12 nations stop thinking of themselves as Greeks, Germans, Danes and so forth and start thinking of themselves as Europeans. One clear message from the current polls and elections is that this big step is still a long way off. Indeed, it may never fully arrive as long as Europeans speak so many different languages.
But much more progress already has been made than was considered possible only five years. The key to continuing the process is to aim and to build a greater degree of direct democracy into the process of unification as the history-making European Union keeps holding more and more multinational elections.