Thursday, May 4, 2006

Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair had the worst week of his long political career. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s “diary secretary” assuaged the 67-year-old’s libidinous appetite with instant trouser-down romps in his office and government-provided Admiralty House apartment — and then spilled salacious beans to the Sunday Daily Mail for almost $500,000.

Accompanying pictures showed the attractive Tracey Temple, 43, caressing Mr. Prescott’s impressive paunch at a party, unbuttoning his shirt, and another of the former merchant marine steward, beaming from ear to ear, her legs around his neck, carried out in his arms, as he exited a Christmas party.

Mr. Blair deadpanned in Parliament that Mr. Prescott’s work “behind the scenes” was more important than anyone knew.

Tabloids went berserk with a double-header scandal. Home Secretary Charles Clarke had just admitted losing track of 1,003 foreign criminals, including murderers and rapists, who should have been deported but were inexplicably freed to commit other offences. Twenty of the most serious offenders were not even on the New Scotland Yard database.

Bad news for the Labor Party in this week’s local elections was the beginning of the end for Tony Blair’s brilliant career — and for the U.K.’s second-largest contribution to coalition forces in Iraq.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, just behind Mr. Blair in President Bush’s European fan club, finally conceded defeat to Mario Prodi, the center-left former president of the European Union’s governing commission. The leftward shift in Italy’s outlook became clear when a communist veteran was elected president of the national assembly. But with Mr. Berlusconi conceding defeat with only a one-tenth of 1 percent (49.8 to 49.7) loss to Mr. Prodi, Italian politics seemed headed for stagnation. Mr. Prodi says he wants Italian troops out of Iraq by year’s end.

Mr. Berlusconi, in an attempt to pre-empt his opponent, had already begun thinning out Italy’s 2,000-strong contribution that has sustained 40 killed thus far. Mr. Bush hopes to reduce U.S. forces from 138,000 to fewer than 100,000 before the end of 2006. Spain’s new socialist government called its troops home after defeating the conservative government in March 2004, which followed the terrorist attacks against five trains in Madrid.

In France, Dominique de Villepin’s conservative government capitulated to the street over an elementary labor reform that would have allowed employers to fire under 25-year-olds after two years on the job. France’s cradle-to-grave social security, coupled with guaranteed employment, remains a sacrosanct entitlement. Massive street demonstrations all over France were a vote against what the left had portrayed as “American-style bandit capitalism.”

France’s conservative camp quickly split wide open when a long-smoldering scandal bubbled over onto front pages with charges of smears and countersmears that left President Jacques Chirac and his protege Mr. de Villepin (at 24 percent) on the ropes. The victor on points was blunt and plainspoken, media-savvy Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-of-center son of a Hungarian immigrant who views the French establishment’s highly educated and cultured “nomenklatura” with a jaundiced eye.

Mr. Sarkozy’s thing is immigration and law and order. He echoes the slogan of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the far-right anti-immigrant leader of the National Front: “France, love it or leave it.” He has introduced a law that imposes tougher sanctions on unskilled, low-income immigrants. But it also eases access for highly qualified foreign workers. “We can’t offer housing and jobs to all those who think France is El Dorado,” he says, offering an alternative to “squats, ghettos and rioting.”

Race riots swept France last fall, as Muslim youth torched some 10,000 automobiles, and immigration, mostly from North Africa and sub-Sahara Africa, remains a hot button issue in a country that has Western Europe’s largest Muslim community. The bill also strips illegal immigrants of the right to residency permits after living 10 years on French territory. Nor would immigrants have an automatic right to have family members join them.

But French presidential elections are still a year away. And the left is yet to be heard from. Only 36 percent of the French believe the free market is the best available system. France is one of the few countries where the Communist Party still enjoys respect. Mr. Sarkozy outpolls all contenders for the presidency — except one.

The rising Socialist star, the attractive Segolene Royal, 52, is an unmarried mother of four. She lives with their father, Francois Hollande, the Socialist leader, who currently ranks eighth in presidential straw polls. The final race is already dubbed “Sego vs. Sarko.” To bone up on the economy, Europe and foreign affairs, Ms. Royal has created her own think tank, Desirs d’Avenir (Future Desires).

If Germany can elect Angela Merkel as chancellor, why can’t France elect “Madame la Presidente?” is already a campaign slogan for Mr. Chirac’s successor next year.

The vast political distances between Britain, France, Germany and Italy have doomed plans to rekindle the embers of the European Union’s moribund constitution. Skepticism about a European Union keeps growing in public opinion polls all over the Continent.

Unspoken is the widespread belief Europe can never be a “counterweight” to the United States by punching above its weight. This would require vast increases in defense spending, for which no government is prepared to pay. Defense budgets are usually a favorite place for savings to take care of growing welfare costs.

The “counterpart” to the U.S. option is also losing its allure. There are no takers for economic sanctions against Iran. The military option, which Mr. Bush says is on the table, and which European leaders dread, would almost certainly trigger European neutrality. The U.S. and Israel would then be left standing alone against the Muslim world.

Europe’s integration theologians have long preached, all evidence to the contrary, there is no contradiction between deepening their union and enlarging it. But pragmatists have gradually displaced canonists. EU Commission President Manuel Barroso, a former Portuguese Maoist who morphed into economic liberal, now says Europe needs a new “narrative” to sell the enterprise to countless millions of Europeans who have lost interest.

For leaders of Europe’s major powers, giving up their sovereignty prerogatives would mean, down that road, voting for the status of a U.S. state governor. Not on this watch. Nor on many watches to come.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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