- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2001

The election of flamboyant conservative media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi as Italys new leader raises all sorts of fascinating questions. Despite a European media campaign of demonization, Mr. Berlusconi sailed easily to victory in both houses of parliament this weekend. American conservatives may take heart from the fact that he campaigned on a Gingrich-like "contract with the Italian people," including tax cuts, reform of the countrys bloated bureaucracy, education reform, law and order and competitive bidding for public sector contracts. However, before we start celebrating the return of European conservatism, it may be worth recalling that Mr. Berlusconis last stint in power in 1996 lasted all of 6 months.
Mr. Berlusconi will head Italys government number 59 since World War II. Particularly interesting is how the Berlusconi government will fare within the 15-member European Union, which is dominated by socialist governments. The only other countries with conservative governments are Spain and Austria, and, as may be recalled, Austrias conservative government under Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel received rough treatment last year for including as a coalition partner Joerg Haiders Freedom Party. With the Italian election, one of the four big European countries could head an emerging conservative bloc. This at least has the potential to present an alternative vision of Europe, one of less centralized governance from Brussels and friendlier relations with the United States.
Mr. Berlusconis coalition partners, which include the neo-fascist National Alliance and the secessionist Northern League, have caused some consternation. Still, the EU diplomatic sanctions slapped on Austria last year will probably not be repeated. "I dont see such an initiative now," said Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson, whose country currently holds the EU presidency. Punishing little Austria was one thing. Kicking Italy around would be quite another.
Furthermore, the wounds left behind by the sanctions still fester, so Austrian Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer told editors at The Washington Times last week; she assumed the leadership of the Freedom Party with the mandate to rehabilitate its image after Mr. Haider was forced to resign. Mr. Haider surely is nothing for the Austrians to be proud of. Still, she said, the sanctions "did great damage to the concept of a unified Europe." In September last year, the Danes voted against joining the common European currency, a result widely seen as influenced by the high-handed treatment of Austria.
What some will find surprising is that European conservatives remain committed to the European Union, a point often missed by American critics of Europe, who tend to rely on British Conservative Euroskeptics for their interpretations. Mr. Berlusconi has stressed his commitment to both the European Union and the United States. Even in Austria, the Freedom Party favors a broader European Union, including enlargement to the east, based on the Thatcher vision of economic cooperation between sovereign national governments. The idea is that if you stretch the European Union far enough, deeper political integration becomes impossible.
Recently at the Heritage Foundation, French conservative Yvan Blot, formerly of Jean le Pens National Front and now a civil servant, made the point that from the perspective of a heavily centralized and bureaucratic country like France, the European Union looks like a haven of good governance and free market capitalism because it enforces limits on deficit spending and state sector growth.
Similarly, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which is still trying to recover from the Helmut Kohl campaign finance scandals, favors the EU and its enlargement. On April 25, new CDU Chairman Angela Merkel said in a speech before the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Washington that conservative policies like decentralization of government functions will make it easier for Germans to feel in control of their own lives within the European Union.
In Britain, however, Conservatives remain deeply divided on the question of Europe under the floundering leadership of the diminutive William Hague. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called a general election for June 7, which unfortunately he is likely to win handily despite widespread disillusionment with his government. Since the demise of John Major and the devastating election defeat of May 1997, the Tories simply have not presented a credible alternative, and part of the problem is the deep and bitter split in the party over its EU stance. The Tory Party platform pledges to keep Britain in Europe, but at arms length from the rest. The reservations of the Anglo-Saxons are understandable, given Britains long and proud history of independence. Still, were Britains Conservatives to engage seriously in the debate over the future of Europe, they and their continental counterparts could help turn the political tide in Europe in their direction. Perhaps they ought to consult Silvio Berlusconis playbook.
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