Renewing Old Europe

by , May 13, 2007

It is almost impossible to predict how it will all shake out, but "old Europe," in former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissive phrase, will almost certainly be politically different than it is today. The election in France, which brought putative conservative Nicolas Sarkozy to the presidency, the announced impending resignation of Tony Blair as prime minister of Great Britain, and the election of center-right prime minister Angela Merkel in Germany, suggest significant changes in the offing. An apparent compromise in Northern Ireland promises to take those "troubles" off the front pages. For the most part, the changes promise movement in the center-right direction (except in Great Britain), but the question is whether these politicians – or any politicians any more – can come close to fulfilling their promises of change.

In general, a surface analysis suggests that continental Europe will be governed by politicians who are less reliably anti-American – or inclined to fall back on criticism of the United States when things aren’t going well – than in the recent past. But this doesn’t necessarily portend that Europe will fall obediently in line if the United States contemplates another military adventure on the order of Iraq in the near future. (One might hope that opinion in the United States itself would prevent this, but U.S. citizens still seem vulnerable to a campaign of demonization, and Ahmadinejad of Iran and Kim Il Jung of North Korea are eminently demonizable. And some Americans, despite the distractions offered by the ill-advised Iraq campaign, are more than ready to worry about China as a mortal future threat.)

Interestingly, even as the continental powers seem to be moving in a marginally pro-American direction, Great Britain – assuming Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Labor’s leader-in-waiting, becomes the new prime minister – is somewhat less likely to fall in lockstep behind the latest U.S. enthusiasm than Tony Blair was. Even the Conservatives, or Tories, have been more skeptical about the Iraq war and the need to maintain the U.S.-British "special relationship" by providing cover for whatever bumbler is in the Oval Office than Tony Blair has been.

REVIVE LA FRANCE

Nicolas Sarkozy, who solidified a reputation as a law-and-order type disinclined to tolerate hooliganism during riots in immigrant Muslim communities in 2005, ran as a conservative (perhaps analogous to a moderate "new Democrat" in the U.S.) who admires the United States, especially its work ethic and productivity. The 53 percent majority he received suggests that a significant number of French voters – some had reservations but voted for him anyway since the alternative was the moderate socialist Segolene Royal – were at least willing to consider this change in attitude.

Whether Sarkozy’s election can be translated into substantially reformed policies, especially changes in entitlements and labor rules, is another question. France’s problems are deep-rooted in demographics (low birth rates and unassimilated immigrants), the decline of bourgeois attitudes and the primacy of the family, slow economic growth, high unemployment, and unfunded liabilities.

Some of the problems Nicolas Sarkozy will face, for example, as he tries to implement what sounds like a bold program of reform but one that is still more than a little vague as to details, were seen almost immediately. Opponents of Mr. Sarkozy took to the streets in Paris, Toulouse, Marseilles, Lyon and elsewhere, torching 730 vehicles and injuring 28 police officers. Almost 600 people were arrested.

It’s not difficult to remember that this is a country where young people held demonstrations as if the world were about to fall apart last year when politicians started talking about making it possible for employers to fire new employees within their first two years on the job.

DETERRENTS TO REFORM

French laws make it almost impossible to fire an unsatisfactory employee, which means employers are reluctant to hire new employees, which means unemployment is high, and the economy is in the doldrums. Labor mobility, innovation and investment have suffered. Yet the very policies that deter economic growth and the restoration of France as a real leader in the world at large are fiercely defended and, in some cases, viewed as near-sacred entitlements.

Mr. Sarkozy, the right-center candidate, seemed to understand the French malaise. He talked about restoring respect for work and entrepreneurial endeavors. He talked about loosening restrictive labor laws.

As the son of a Hungarian immigrant, he said all these things as an outsider to France’s often-cozy political elite – yet he spoke eloquently of restoring France to glory, of making the French proud to be French again. The French people seemed to understand that this was a watershed election, and 85 percent of eligible voters cast votes Sunday.

As Nicholas Dungan, president of the New York-based French-American Foundation, who recently was in France monitoring the campaign, told me, most people in France saw this as a campaign of ideas. Both candidates were born after World War II, both saw a need for change, but offered different visions. Mr. Sarkozy offered a more entrepreneurial and realistic vision, and praised the United States. Ms. Royal, running as a socialist, had a more post-modernist view of the world, maintaining that only minor changes in the extensive French welfare state would be necessary.

Mr. Dungan said the protests Sunday night were the equivalent of letting off steam and didn’t affect French life significantly. “The French had a real sense of making an historic choice,” he told us, “and they chose a more classic, traditionalist way to restore France’s position of leadership in the world.”

The institutional barriers to reform will be formidable. But the voters, in choosing the more change-oriented candidate, may give Mr. Sarkozy the lift he will need.

BYE BYE BLAIR

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, after weeks of speculation and leaks about when exactly it would come, has announced that he is stepping down as leader of the Labor Party and therefore as prime minister – as of June 27. he leaves behind a mixed legacy.

For Americans, the most striking aspect of Tony Blair was the closeness he cultivated with two very different American presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He took the Anglo-American "special relationship" very seriously. He encouraged the United States to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and after 9/11 he brought Great Britain firmly behind the U.S. response, including the ill-considered invasion of Iraq. He defended that decision repeatedly, with a charm and eloquence that many U.S. supporters of the war wished their own president was able to muster.

Yet what for many Americans (present company excepted) was Tony Blair’s finest hour was the major source of his plummeting popularity at home. Most Britons were skeptical of the war from the outset, and that skepticism only increased as the occupation failed to stifle – indeed, may have helped to precipitate – an ugly sectarian conflict inside Iraq.

Domestically, he was the first Labor leader to hold power in 18 years – and to win three consecutive elections. As an apostle of a "third way" between freebooting capitalism and pure statism, he governed more as a moderate than a socialist, leaving in place many of the market-oriented reforms initiated by Mrs. Thatcher while promising to improve the public services such as health and education. The improvements were more incremental than dramatic.

ECONOMICS NOT EVERYTHING

Largely because politicians were not micromanaging the economy, Great Britain has enjoyed a decade of sustained economic growth. London has become a major – perhaps the leading – financial center in the world. Great Britain, perceived as being in the doldrums under Tory prime minister John Major, is now seen as vibrant and forward-looking, a more tolerant place. But it’s easy for people living in relative economic good times to take them for granted, and the Iraq war and corruption tended to overshadow the economic good times in many Britons’ minds.

Mr. Blair can take a great deal of credit for the breakthrough agreement this month in Northern Ireland under which two former adversaries, the protestant Rev. Ian Paisley and former IRA commander Martin McGuiness, share power in an arrangement that, if not warm, is at least cordial and (so far) non-violent.

Mr. Blair might also be able to say that, even as Margaret Thatcher did, he has shifted the terms of political discourse in Great Britain. Even as many left-wing Laborites groused that Mr. Blair changed the Labor Party into one whose policies amounted to Thatcherism-lite, today’s Tory party scrambles to present itself as the party of compassion and caring, a party of Blairism-lite rather than a home for crusty conservatives or unapologetic individualists.

In his resignation speech Mr. Blair offered a reminder that too few politicians heed: "Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down." Considering his approval numbers he had little choice but to relinquish power, but he has done so with grace and dignity.

RESOLVING THE TROUBLES

For anyone who has followed the “troubles,” even in the sporadic and incomplete way one becomes familiar with world events through typical American news coverage, the scene in Northern Ireland on Tuesday had to be heartwarming. There was longtime Protestant leader Ian Paisley and former Irish Republican Army commander Martin McGuinness, agreeing to share power in a new coalition government, and agreeing to respect the rights of members of religious communities they had considered the enemy for decades.

It could all fall apart over some difficulty an outsider might view as trivial, of course. Previous hopeful events, notably the Good Friday accords of 1998, had led to promises of peace between Protestants and Catholics, but several compromise governments have had to be disbanded since then.

If this agreement leads to a modicum of stability with a minimum of violence, however, all those failed efforts in the past may be viewed as necessary precursors to a peace agreement that finally held. It’s worth remembering that it has been a rocky road since clashes in the 1970s led to decades of conflict that left 3,700 Northern Irish dead and thousands injured or maimed.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been working actively to bring this power-sharing government into being for 10 years. It has been at least that long since most Northern Irish had declared themselves sick and tired of the violence and hatred. Some could even argue that without the stubbornness and intransigence of the very political leaders lionized Tuesday an agreement could have been reached long ago.

The sad truth, however, is that in countries that have experienced insurgencies, civil wars or ongoing sectarian violence, it usually takes a long time – long beyond the time when most citizens are ready to call a halt – to bring about a workable settlement. In such situations both sides have legitimate grievances and neither side is inclined to trust the other without ironclad guarantees. Both sides know how to push the other’s buttons in negotiations, so they can delay compromise and blame the other side.

Want a lesson? Those who hope for a speedy resolution in such ongoing disputes as Israel-Palestine, Sunni-Shi’ite in Iraq, or Christian-Muslim-animist in Darfur should remember that even with two stable and competent governments with a direct shared interest in a peaceful resolution working diligently, it has taken a long time to come to this point in Northern Ireland.

REGIONAL IMPLICATIONS

Changes in France, Germany and Great Britain very likely portend a weakening of the integrationist impulse in Europe and a return to what has traditionally been the European mode – balance-of-power politics. The Russians are certainly watching with interest. During much of the 1990s Russia could view increasing European integration as an opportunity to engage the European Union independently of the United States. But the failure of the EU constitution in 2004 and the departure of Jacques Chirac in France and Gerhard Schroeder mean that despite the existence of the Euro and a huge bureaucracy in Brussels, the European Union no longer exists as an entity that can be played off against the United States.

Thus we see Russia centralizing power and using its energy riches to bolster its political power. It is increasing energy ties to Asia to decrease its dependence on European markets, and dangling energy deals in front of individual European countries – Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia– in part to undermine a European unity that is increasingly a figment anyway. This has caused a backlash among former satellites like Poland that have held up negotiations on issues from transport to law enforcement, increasing the sense of distance between Europe and Russia.

The Cold War made power relationships in Europe and Russia reasonably static for about 50 years. It has taken a while – culminating finally in the election of leaders born after World War II – for history to resume and new power relationships to begin to work themselves out. I don’t deign to predict the details, but Europe will be a different place in a few years.

Read more by Alan Bock