The Pope's Political Troops: The Left Has Less to Fear from Right-Wing Extremists Than from the New Centre-Right Which, with a Streak of Renewed Catholicism, Now Dominates Europe. (Features)

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The political right is in power in much of the rich world--and it looks like staying there. This is because it is richly diverse in its range, and is acquiring an ideology, or ideologies -- including the ideology of eschewing ideology. It spans (to leave aside neo-Nazi groups) a spectrum from far-right chauvinism to centrist social liberalism: and it is now coming together, beginning to adumbrate a "Third Way" of the right.

Across Europe, the far right looks deflated: Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, the junior coalition partner with the People's Party in Austria, has split and is expected to fare badly at the 24 November election; in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn's List, which came to power in the wake of its charismatic leader's murder, has already spectacularly imploded. And although the Danish People's Party, the Flemish Vlaams Blok in Belgium and the Norwegian Progress Party are riding high in the polls, none is in government.

In Italy, the right is regarded as devoid of ideology. Silvio Berlusconi, creator and leader of Forza Italia and now prime minister, liked to present himself and his party as winners, using both foot-balling and business rhetoric to underpin the impression that here was an irresistible force brushing aside the previously over-ideologised Italian political groupings. But the rhetoric is not enough to sustain him in power -- the more so now, when both Italian football and the Italian economy are losing ground to their European competitors.

Catholicism now bids to fill this ideological gap in Italy. It had always underpinned the values and the positions of the pre-1990s Christian Democratic centre-right: indeed, Catholicism so permeated the Christian Democrats that left-wing Catholicism found a home in the party, producing a rather shapeless if powerful political force that proved more radical on some issues than the Communist Party.

Today's Catholicism is different: it is not extreme, but neither is it centrist. In an essay this month, Ezio Mauro, editor of La Repubblica, wrote of a culture in which the values of family, faith and patriotism are being stressed anew, and are gaining stature from their association with a popular and conservative Pope -- who last week addressed the Italian parliament for the first time. This Catholicism, wrote Mauro, has received "the baptism of television" -- from the state TV service, RAI, in which a number of militant Catholics are well placed.

Could this move beyond Italy? Yes, since the redoubts of the right -- France and Spain -- are strongly Catholic countries: while the native Lander of Edmund Stoiber, leader of the German right, is Bavaria, the most Catholic part of Germany. Catholicism still retains a sense of itself as a -- as the -- world religion and in this guise, it measures itself against Islam -- offering a bedrock for the values of a "civilisation" as a counterpoise against the militancy of the threatening radical Islam. Its assumptions are likely to lie behind the statement earlier this month by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing that Turkey is not a European nation and that it would be "the end of the EU" if it were admitted. Giscard recently had a long audience with the Pope and has floated the idea of inserting a statement of Christian values into the European constitution, which he has much power to influence as chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe.

The most decisive moves, however, are being taken in the centre. And this is worse news for the left. The European social democrats had hoped to displace the right from the centre by adopting a broadly pro-free market economic policy, and dropping most of their aspirations to any kind of existing socialism. But among the governments of major states, this remains true only in Britain, where new Labour still marginalises the Conservatives. Elsewhere, the left flounders, while the centre-right consolidates. …