Big business is climbing over Europe's national frontiers much more easily than labor unions or democratic institutions. With the unified market scheduled for the end of 1992 and the free movement of capital set for next year, industrial concentration is proceeding apace and the financial giants are strengthening their hold on Europe's economy. The labor unions are doing little to match this activity, and the so-called social Europe so feared by conservatives (because of its goal of protecting the poorer sections of the population) is, for the moment, no more than talk. The European Parliament has not kept up with these developments either. Its 518 deputies sitting in Strasbourg, France, can merely delay and amend, leaving the power of decision to the Brussels-based European Commission and to the Council of Ministers that represents the European Community's twelve member states. At this stage the European Parliament is a rubber-stamp institution, and the Europeans, usually heavy voters, show no great enthusiasm for taking part in its election.
The third-ever direct European poll, held June 15 in five member countries and June 18 in the remaining seven, confirmed this trend. Except in Greece and Ireland, where it coincided with a national election, or in Belgium and Italy, where voting is in principle compulsory, only half those entitled to vote bothered to do so (in Britain the figure was one out of three). While questionable as a democratic test, the European election is useful as an opinion poll, provided that one bears in mind the number of abstentions and the fact that, since the results matter little, the voters can express their preferences without making the usual tactical calculations.
Compared with the last vote, in 1984, the rightward trend in mainstream Western European politics has been reversed. Britain provides an exaggerated example: Encumbered by strikes, rising inflation and high interest rates, Margaret Thatcher has suffered her first national defeat. The Tory share of the vote dropped to 35 percent, while the Labor Party's climbed to 40 percent. The arrogant Iron Lady must now eat humble pie. Elsewhere the change is less pronounced. The Socialists have gained a bit in Italy and held their ground in West Germany, France and Spain. Their relative improvement coincides with a setback of the center-right in these countries.
The worst result of the elections is the advance of the extreme right. Though Western Europe is in the ascendant phase of the trade cycle, the deep economic crisis of the past fifteen years is far from over. With it came mass unemployment and xenophobia, expressed by parties like Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. Le Pen, who is regularly buried by wishful thinkers, has consolidated his position with just under 12 percent of the French poll. In Strasbourg, his henchmen can now look toward to more than a reunion with Italy's neo-Fascists. They will also greet some ominous newcomers-six neo-Nazis, or Republicans, headed by former Waffen SS officer Franz Schönhuber, whose party captured 7 percent of the West German vote. The group will now have twenty-two deputies. The extreme right has thus established a lasting presence in Western European politics.
The more important and encouraging lesson of this election is the impressive rise of the Greens. The German pioneers may only be holding steady, but they will have plenty more companions in Strasbourg, for the increase affects the whole region. It is most spectacular in Britain, where the Greens, who are demanding their country's exit from NATO, have jumped from almost total invisibility to 14 percent of the vote, reducing the centrist Social and Liberal Democrats to a distant fourth place. (However, since Britain's members of the European Parliament are not elected through proportional representation, no British Greens will have a seat in Strasbourg.) Belgium's Ecologists won roughly the same proportion of the vote; the French Greens have suddenly exceeded the 10 percent mark; even in Italy, where they are split, they have reached 6 percent, and in Holland, 7 percent.
It is understandable that Europeans should be increasingly preoccupied with environmental threats to both their everyday life and their long-term fate. Yet, there are other reasons for the amplitude of the Green tide. In the increasingly consensual politics of Western Europe, with its sea of free-market platitudes, the Greens were the only ones to sound radically different, to raise questions about the meaning and purpose of growth, to tackle the issue of the Third World and its exploitation. They were the only ones to deal with problems that the left faced in the 1960% then dropped in its search for managerial respectability. The Greens are politically heterogeneous and clearly divided, and what they will do with their gains remains to be seen. Tomorrow in Strasbourg, metaphorically speaking, will they sit on the left or cling to the chandelier? One thing is certain: If the left does not answer the questions posed by the Greens, it will never achieve a lasting victory. Nor will it deserve one.