A Love-Hate Relationship - While Europeans Become More American Every Day, They Spend More Time Looking for Ways to Complain about America

By Serfaty, Simon | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

A Love-Hate Relationship - While Europeans Become More American Every Day, They Spend More Time Looking for Ways to Complain about America


Serfaty, Simon, The World and I


For nearly 50 years, the influence of Europe's institutions has grown steadily from one treaty to the next--from Rome in 1957, to Maastricht, Amsterdam, and Nice since the end of the Cold War. Caged in these ever more intrusive institutions, people lost their passions, previously sharpened on the Right by the need to save the nation from its foreign enemies, and, on the Left, by the urge to build more just societies at home. Absent these public passions, the countries of Europe progressively left their traditional moorings at extreme political poles to sail toward a new normality anchored at the center.

Born out of the ideologies that betrayed them during the first half of the twentieth century, the ideas that shaped Europe's political life during the Cold War amounted to little, if anything. Indeed, what is most remarkable about the rise and fall of communism in postwar Europe is how little it achieved during its decades of maximum influence, and how little was left behind after the collapse of its main agent in Moscow.

The Soviet Union and its allies, as well as the communist parties and their disciples, are all gone--almost instantaneously and without the least hint of anger or regret. Nothing is left of the old Left. Even the space that it had sought at the center has been moving to the right, from one election to the next, from Italy and France to Norway and Holland.

Instead, the most lasting influence of the recent ideological battles was to promote a successor generation of European political leaders who abandoned their idea of the revolution even before the revolution failed them. For in their race to the top, they, too, lost the convictions that used to give urgency to their discourse.

There is more flexibility now, and the only urgency left is that of the coming election. "Why am I expected to be of the same opinion today as I was six weeks ago?" asked one of Stendhal's main characters in his epic novel The Red and the Black. "That would mean I was the slave of my opinion." Ideological slavery is hardly the fate of Europe's new political class, whose post-modernist approach to political accountability transforms reality into what it is said to be rather than what it is. Thus, with an implicit recognition that Europe's institutions leave their members with no alternative to the policies in place, dissent is only a path to political power that is built with charismatic cement and rhetorical bricks.

In 1981, newly elected French president Francois Mitterrand may have been the political godfather of Europe's new leaders--he, whose stubborn will to be all he could be was never translated into a reliable will to do all he should do. With and after him, everything was merged into one big centrist blur, not only in France but elsewhere in Europe, where the political spoils go to those who, like Mitterrand, could best forget the convictions entertained during the heroic days of their youth. These convictions were designed to serve their ambitions-- an avenue to power that moved left and right until it fell into the rhetorical shortcuts of the Third Way.

Demise of the Third Way

Born out of a double negative--neither Left nor Right--the Third Way proved to be a shortcut to nowhere. Of the many leaders who wished to take that path a very few years ago, few are left. Hardly any one of them--Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, and Goran Persson in Sweden--uses the phrase now. Yet this loss of political passions at a time of unprecedented democratic affluence may be cause for new instabilities.

Today anything goes--as evidenced in 2002 during the French and German national elections (although the offensive presidential candidacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen and the outrageous comment made by the then Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin hopefully set unrepeatable excesses). Legislative bodies that form a national mosaic of specialized interests respond to parochial pressures, leading to a protracted stalemate or to bargains that defy coherence.

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