Thatcher's Time of Grim Re-evaluation

Paul L. Montgomery is an American correspondent covering political and economic matters in Europe

In those bygone days when the European Parliament was known as the Cave of the Winds for all the effect-less speeches that stirred it, the conventional wisdom was that Europewide voting for members had only a tenuous connection with national politics.

Political analysts argued that last month's European Parliament elections, like municipal elections in some countries and presidential primaries in the United States, were based more on whim and temporary feeling than considered judgment or traditional alliances. Voters, in this analysis, could afford to adopt a devil-may-care approach because they could be sure the people they selected would not actually govern them. Certainly in the first two European Parliament elections, the Green parties and the far right did better than they did in national voting.

After the debacle for her Conservative Party in the latest round of European voting, Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher must be hoping fiercely that this conventional wisdom still holds. While her Labor opponents, who had finished a sad second every other time they went against Thatcher, crowed that the end was nigh, the Tories were engaged in a grim re-evaluation of their European posture.

European Community members with socialist governments, such as France and Spain, could barely conceal their glee. Variations of the headline "Is the Iron Lady Rusting?" appeared in a variety of languages.

Britain has 81 of the 518 seats in the European Parliament. With the recent elections, the situation of the Conservatives and Labor were exactly reversed from the last balloting five years ago. Whereas the Conservatives had previously held 45 seats to Labor's 32, the score now is Labor 45, Conservatives 32. (The rest of the seats are filled by small regional parties.)

Worse than that, the Conservative share of the total votes dropped to 34.2%, the lowest percentage in a nationwide poll during this century. It was the first national defeat for the Tories in 14 years. A Harris poll last Sunday in the Observer, which is no friend of the Thatcher government, gave Labor 48% of the vote to 34% for the Conservatives if a national election were held now.

But it will be at least two years before Thatcher has to face such a test. She dismisses the Euroresults as temporary and trendless, a mere blip in her relentless progress. At last week's European Community summit she showed a slightly increased inclination to compromise, but no sign of contrition or any major policy shift.

Analyses of the vote must also take into account the peculiarities of the British electoral system. The United Kingdom is the only one of 12 European Community countries to maintain voting by constituency rather than by proportional representation. That means voters in constituencies certain to go to one party or another are especially tempted to lodge protest votes for special-interest parties--or to stay home.

Britain's turnout of 37% was the lowest among the countries voting, compared with 47% in the Netherlands, 49% in France and 61% in West Germany. Yet high turnouts do not necessarily mean high acceptance of the European ideal. In Belgium, where 93% of those eligible voted, voting is compulsory with a fine rising to $100 for recalcitrants; in Italy, with an 88% turnout, failure to vote is entered on a citizen's "Certificate of Good Conduct," needed for some civil-service jobs.

The British Green Party, making its first nationwide showing, enjoyed remarkable results, winning 14% of total votes cast.

In some Tory country strongholds of southern England, the Greens actually came second, ahead of both Labor and what's left of the hapless Liberal-Social Democrat alliance. But although they won the highest vote percentage in the European environmental movement, the British Greens did not win a single seat because of the constituency system. The French Verts got 10.6% of the vote but won nine seats through proportional representation, while the German Greens came away with eight seats on 8.4% of the vote.

Thatcher, who began embracing environmental causes last fall after ignoring them for a decade, has implied that in a Tory-Labor showdown, the bulk of the Green vote would go to the Tories. It is certainly true that Labor has never stressed ecology--directing its appeal instead to urban issues. However, it seems likely that the biggest cause of the Green surge was the disarray among the Liberals and Social Democrats, who had previously claimed the ecological issue as their campaign turf.

In their projections for the next British general election, analysts must also factor in the lack of discipline among Labor ranks. Ideological splits, with socialists on the hard left attacking comfortable Social Democrats on the right, have more than once spoiled any prospect of a Labor victory.

In his public appearances these days, Neil Kinnock, the Labor leader, stresses the need to adopt electable positions. But favorite Labor ideas, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from European unity and renationalization of denationalized industries still keep popping up.

In the end, most commentators pointed to Thatcher's uneasiness with European integration as the cause of her party's poor showing two weeks ago. The prime minister, in a series of scornful attacks, had spent much of the winter calling into question the next steps in the creation of a united Europe. She said the dropping of remaining trade barriers by the end of 1992 was fine, but that creation of a European central bank, a common currency and giving up a measure of national sovereignty for integration were "airy-fairy ideas."

Such sentiments are common among small-scale businessmen fearing the arrival of hyper-markets, agribusiness and all the other appurtenances of expansion. The theory, however, is that in the Tories' high-tech party, Thatcher's protests were not heard by the voters. While party aides correctly observed that Labor's record has been even more anti-European than Thatcher's, it did seem that some of the traditional Conservative support was worried by the prime minister's recalcitrance.

Socialists, including the British Labor Party, will be the largest bloc when the new European Parliament meets in Strasbourg, France, on July 25.

Under the streamlined system adopted to speed the post-1992 market, the Parliament has a major voice in amending and approving enabling legislation. That could pit the parliamentary majority against those nations that have right-of-center governments, such powerful member countries as West Germany and Britain. If that turns out to be the case, then Thatcher's problems with Europe have barely begun.

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