Published online 9 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.556

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Green boost in European elections may trigger nuclear fight

Funding for human embryonic stem cell research another likely battleground.

European parliamentThe European election has boosted the Green's presence in the parliament.EP

Green parties celebrating their success in last week's European Parliament election are gearing up for a fight over nuclear power.

The coalition of green parties, who are unanimous in their anti-nuclear position, increased their presence in the European Parliament from 5.5% to 7.1% (52 seats). Although not enough to force any changes, science-policy experts anticipate a major battle on the issue in the next legislature.

The European Parliament does not currently have the power to legislate on energy production in the European Union's 27 member states. But if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified later this year by the remaining few member states that have not yet signed up, parliament's power will extend into new areas. "If the Lisbon treaty is approved, it will give the European Union responsibility for energy security," says Ulrike Lunacek, who is president of the European Green Party and a newly elected member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Austria. "We will use this opportunity to make a stand in the European Parliament against nuclear power," she told Nature.

During the last legislature, the majority of MEPs switched from being against nuclear power to accepting that it may be a necessity. In February, MEPs approved a report on the EU's future energy strategy which called on the European Commission to draw up a road map for nuclear investments. The report emphasizes the importance of maintaining nuclear power capacity, and MEPs rejected by a large majority a phase-out plan put forward by the Greens.

The Greens did not bring the nuclear issue to a plenary debate at the time, but they will in the new parliament, says Lunacek, adding that she hopes the group will draw in some of the new MEPs from far right-wing or eurosceptic parties whose positions on nuclear energy are not known, or not fixed.

Same old spectrum

The election has not radically affected the general balance of power among the major political groups in the parliament. The conservative European People's Party/European Democrats (EPP/ED) group held its majority, winning 36% (263) of the 736 available seats. The Socialist group remains the second largest, but has reduced its presence from 27% to 22% (162 seats). The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is still the third largest group, with a 12% share (80 seats).

Much has been made of the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to withdraw the United Kingdom from Europe. It got 13 seats, the same number as the beleaguered ruling Labour party. The party rejects the idea that carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are linked to dangerous climate change, and argues that plans to tackle the threat of global warming are "hysterical" and an "over-reaction". But the Independence and Democracy Group to which UKIP belongs has won only 18 seats in all across Europe, limiting its influence.

The new political spectrum in the parliament is not expected to have a strong impact on other science-related issues in the next legislature. The most important of these will be shaping and approving the multi-billion euro Eighth Framework Programme of research (FP8), which is due to launch in 2014.

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Luis Martin Oar, chief administrator of the European Parliament's research committee, says that it will be individual MEPs, rather than the parties, who will make the difference when it comes to science-related issues. "Groups tend to be split on many issues — even the Greens are split on issues which are not core policies," he explains. Funding for research on human embryonic stem cells, for example, is likely to be a major source of political conflict in FP8, he says.

Two re-elected individuals in particular will be influential on science policy. One is Poland's former Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek (EPP/ED group), once a chemical engineer, who was rapporteur for FP7 and is now tipped as possible parliamentary president. The other is Spain's Alejo Vidal-Quandras (EPP/ED), parliamentary vice-president in the last two legislatures and formerly a nuclear physicist. 

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