By Catherine Field
PARIS - Voters in 15 Western European nations go to the polls next week to elect a new Parliament of the European Union, but amid widespread gloom about the state of the EU's economy, scepticism about its institutions and uncertainty about the political road ahead.
Six months ago, the vote looked likely to be something of a party.
Western Europe would have cel ebrated, with Nato's 50th anniversary, an unprecedented era of peace, stability and prosperity. The revolutions that ended Europe's Cold War divide would also be heading for their 10th anniversary. And the EU itself had just completed its greatest achievement - the creation of a single currency, which federalists see as the cornerstone of a United States of Europe.
Since then, however, it has been nothing but a tale of woe. The euro quickly became a butt of jokes as it began a relentless slide against other currencies. The EU's executive, the Commission, resigned after an independent report revealed that it had presided over a nightmare of bad management, corruption and nepotism.
Then the Kosovo war began, highlighting the poor resolve of EU countries about how to tackle a conflict on their own doorstep and their shameful dependence, once more, on the United States.
Governments are predictably having a problem mustering voter interest in an institution that has lost so much of its credibility. In a sign of its desperation, the French Government has pasted up posters all over the country, trying to inspire civic pride among the indifferent - or at least a sense of guilt. The slogan is "I think, therefore I vote." Voting for the 626 seats in the Strasbourg-based assembly takes place on either June 10, 11 or 13, depending on the member state.
Compounding the task is the unimpressive record of the European Parliament. Despite its grandiose name, it has been for most of its life a talking shop with virtually no legislative powers. Few EU citizens have any idea what the assembly is or what it does. Those with any knowledge largely recall the Parliament's insane cost (it is a travelling circus, commuting between its main base in Strasbourg to Luxembourg and Brussels) and the tediousness and fat salaries of its members.
They may also recall its worthy (but impotent) resolutions on issues ranging from Tibet to domestic violence, mad cow disease and the Palestinians.
To the dismay of the federalists, core political power still resides within national capitals. Many politicians in Strasbourg are party time-servers or party veterans put out to grass. Traditionally, the Council of Ministers, gathering representatives from national Governments, has held primacy.
Things, however, are beginning to change. However obscure it may be to the European public, the Parliament is undeniably becoming more influential.
Ignored or lampooned a decade ago, the assembly's general sessions are now covered by all the major European media and powerful lobbies, representing agricultural, industrial and commercial interests, have set up offices in Strasbourg to court deputies.
Nor is this just a question of style more than substance. Under the Amsterdam Treaty, the latest accord transferring national sovereignty to the EU centre, the next European Parliament will be the most powerful ever. It will have equal powers of decision with the Council of Ministers on almost everything on the EU agenda except farm and foreign policy.
The elections are thus being closely monitored to see if the Parliament has finally come of age. If first-rate politicians emerge, rather than party loyalists, that will be a sign at last that political careers are no longer made in national capitals.
The outgoing assembly was roughly divided into left-wing and right-wing blocs, with the socialist group dominant, wielding 213 of the 626 seats. But Simon Hix, an academic of the London School of Economics, believes that liberals, greens, regional members (such as the Catalans and Scottish nationalists) and independents will do well in the next elections, making the assembly more vigorous and unpredictable.
These could be the people who decide, at last, whether the European Parliament attains a maturity as impressive as its name.