- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006


Whither Europe? As the German political parties sort themselves out after the razor-thin results of parliamentary elections late last year, the Italian campaign is heating up, with voting scheduled for April 9. The French face presidential elections next year.

Is Europe moving left? Right? Both? What does it mean for Americans and for prospects for assistance in President Bush’s policies, particularly in the Middle East?

Both French President Jacques Chirac, who is not running for re-election, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is, are seen as more or less traditional European conservatives, even if Mr. Berlusconi occasionally raises eyebrows when he compares himself, as he did last week, to Napoleon, and days later when he called himself “the Jesus Christ of Italian politics.”

Both leaders have nationalist, anti-immigrant fringe parties on their right. In the past, those were sometimes seen as threats to the centrists, but now the far right is likely to be subsumed by the huge and rapidly growing wave of unease throughout Europe about the size and isolation of their immigrant Muslim populations. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, the later bombings in Madrid and London, the recent riots in France, and the wave of anti-Danish and anti-European demonstrations throughout the Muslim world protesting Muhammad cartoons originally published in a Copenhagen newspaper, there is much talk in Europe about a culture war between Europeans and Muslims.

On top of the general feeling of distrust among Europeans when they talk about their immigrants, which they do ever more frequently and unhappily, and about the countries those immigrants come from, which are not so very far away to the south and east of Europe, there is intense and specific fear about the growing threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

They wish he would just go away. They do not really want to think about what it might take in political or economic terms, much less military terms, for Europe to deal with Iran itself. When confronted with such issues, Europeans note how high their taxes are now, even with military expenditures a fraction as high as those of America.

They point out how the European social fabric is already torn by the need to dismantle large parts of the benefits system built up after the last World War. France is extending the workweek and privatizing state-owned companies. Italy is extending the number of years people have to work to qualify for pensions. They don’t want to pay the cost of taking on Iran.

They would like the United States — which many Europeans seem to think of as a very handy Action Comics Super Hero — to simply make the Iranian problem go away.

However, many Europeans have serious doubts, including and perhaps especially Europeans who are strongly pro-American and long-time conservative supporters of conservative American presidents. They see the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and distracted by that from what Europeans regard as more serious problems. These include Iran, but also North Korean nuclear threats, Russia’s perceived decline into renewed dictatorship and looming chaos in Palestine, to name a few.

After a couple of weeks of conversations with Europeans including active and retired French and Italian businessmen and a French business lawyer, all with broad international interests and almost all on the right of the political spectrum — a couple of points of agreement seem to have emerged.

Europeans do not seem to think future relations with the United States will likely depend significantly on what happens in the coming elections, or, in fact, any elections. Foreign policy is not nearly as subject to partisan political debate in Europe as it is in America. This is partly because the European electorates, parliaments and high officials are much more inclined than their American counterparts to leave formulation and conduct of foreign policy to the civil service experts in foreign ministries.

Second, at least until now, there have been no organized pressure groups in Europe that try to shape foreign policy.

This is contrasts markedly with the U.S. tradition of voters lobbying their elected officials on behalf of relatives abroad and/or countries their ancestors left.

As a result, foreign policy is much less likely in Europe to play a prominent role in election politics. For example, it had almost no role in the German elections last autumn. The election of the right-of-center Chancellor Angela Merkel may have improved the sour atmospherics of Washington-Berlin relations but with no apparent or substantive policy changes.

Whether and to what extent immigrant Muslim communities will change the European tradition remains to be seen.

Unlike the hot-button issues that dominated the German elections and are in the forefront of the Italian campaign — taxes, social security, privatization, workers’ rights, the environment — there is a real consensus across the entire political spectrum about relations with the United States. That consensus reflects a widespread conviction that the current American administration is incompetent and that President Bush and his team are not up to the job.

More in sorrow than in anger, traditional European supporters of conservative American presidents (such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) say they have no confidence in the Bush administration. They look at the administration and at the Republican Congress and express intense dismay with the entire GOP. One close friend and enthusiastic Berlusconi supporter said last week he thinks it would be a disaster if the Republicans are re-elected.

So where do these Europeans look for help in dealing with Iran? With an obvious shudder, a number reminisced about Israel’s 1981 destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London, and Brussels.

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