Europe's Political Seesaw

By Dale, Helle | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Europe's Political Seesaw


Dale, Helle, The World and I


The European political landscape can best be described as the scene for a struggle for dominance between the Left and Right--though with the Right undeniably gaining a level of strength it has not displayed for over a decade. From the United States, Europe tends to look like a jumble of rather hostile social democratic governments, and the blame for that adheres to the EU institutions in Brussels.

Whenever statements come out of the European Commission, they tend to challenge the power of the United States, particularly those of the EU's commissioner for foreign affairs, Christ Patten. More often than not, those emanating from individual European governments, which have to mind their bilateral relationships, are of a far less strident nature.

Accordingly, the fact that Europe now sports a significant number of conservative or libertarian governments has escaped most political analysts in the United States. The question remains whether their existence amounts to a coherent political movement--a conservative counterpart to the social democrats' Third Way for instance--and whether they will be able to effect a course correction in the EU, toward a more free-trade-oriented institution.

This European balance of power struggle is of great interest to the United States-- as well as to the Europeans themselves. It can be assumed that conservative European governments will be friendlier toward a Republican administration in Washington. This will not be true on every policy issue, but it is generally true. On environmental issues, on trade disputes, and on the International Criminal Court, however, European governments across the political spectrum are adamantly opposed to the U.S. positions.

Yet, in the war against terrorism and on the question of Iraq, conservative governments in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark have shown a high degree of support for the United States. So has the British Labour government of Tony Blair, who is today the primary ally of the United States. Blair is no ordinary left-wing politician, however. He has sometimes been called the real heir to Margaret Thatcher, embracing fiscally prudent and business-friendly policies that tend to infuriate the left wing of his own party (as does his Iraqi policy).

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Mar'a Aznar, who was for years the lone conservative leader in Europe, told the Spanish government in early September that "we are on the side of those who want to prevent threats to the world. ... It is incredible that the Iraqi regime for some time has been trying by all means to acquire weapons of mass destruction and give cover to terrorism."

The French center-right government of new Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has been fairly open to the arguments made by U. …

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