Europe Struggles to Follow a 'Third Way' Path ; Germany, France, and Britain All Saw Vocal Debates This Week Overplanned Reforms

Article excerpt

As European Socialists - in power almost across the Continent - battle to modernize their movement, three skirmishes over the past week have highlighted their problems in following a common "Third Way," in the political style of President Clinton's New Democrats.

Three recent vignettes from the front: In Paris, Communist trade unionists and members of the employers' federation both staged rallies on Monday to attack the Socialist-led government's plans for labor reform.

In Germany, the country's largest trade union launched its annual convention on Monday with a demand for a lower retirement age that would destroy the foundations of Chancellor Gerhard Schrder's budget reforms.

In Bourne-mouth, England, the most vocal opponents Prime Minister Tony Blair had to deal with at his Labour Party's annual conference were country-dwellers defending their right to hunt foxes.

In France, the pragmatic Premier Lionel Jospin is having to navigate carefully between left and right; in Germany, Mr. Schrder cannot ignore the power of traditional trade unions; only in Britain can the government count on broad public support for its vision of the future.

Schrder's woes

In the deepest trouble, as he struggles to build the "New Middle" that he used successfully as an election slogan little more than a year ago, is German Chancellor Schrder.

This autumn he and his Social Democratic Party have suffered a string of humiliating defeats in state and regional elections, sometimes garnering only half the support they won a year ago. Violent struggles within the ruling party, between its left and right wings, and spats with the environmentalist-oriented Greens, their coalition partner, have left the impression of a floundering and directionless government.

"It is not clear exactly what Schrder's vision is," says Anke Hassel, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, a Cologne-based think tank. "There is a contradiction between what he says and what he does."

'Vision' falls short

The vision should have come with a joint declaration Schrder issued with Mr. Blair in June, titled "Europe: The Third Way, Die Neue Mitte." The statement called on the two leaders' European peers to deregulate markets, cut taxes, and hold down public spending. The spirit behind it was the one that has moved the British Labour Party since it took office two years ago - to broaden individual opportunity, rather than to guarantee social protection from the state.

But this enraged the left wingers in Schrder's party, who had scarcely been consulted. The attitude also perturbed voters. "Schrder's dilemma is how to mobilize old Social Democratic voters and the New Middle at the same time," says Christoph Strnck, a ruling party adviser.

At the same time, predicts Dr. Hassel, "the trade unions are going to be an obstacle" to Schrder's hopes to streamline the German economy. …

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