October 17, 2006

October 17, 2006 | Commentary on Europe

The European Union: No Sign of Political Convergence

In the last month two European governments fell. Nothing new there; governments come and go all the time. But as the two new administrations took office, they highlighted the contradictions rather than the unity of the European Union.

On Oct. 1, voters in Austria rejected a right-wing government, which had pursued an agenda of privatization, increased defense spending and cuts in corporate taxation. The new government in Vienna will be a coalition led by the Social Democrats. Alfred Gusenbauer, the Social Democrat leader almost certain to be the next Austrian chancellor, pledged in his campaign to cancel the Austrian military's order of 18 Eurofighter jets, abolish university fees and increase pension payments.

But in Sweden, two weeks earlier, the Social Democrats (who had since 1994 determinedly kept Sweden the model state for so many big-government liberals) suffered their worst defeat since 1914 as voters elected the Moderate Party's Fredrik Reinfeld. The centerpiece of Reinfeldt's election platform was an ambitious 25 billion euro ($31.4 billion) program of privatization, with more than 5 billion euros ($6.3 billion) of state assets to be sold to the public for each of the next four years. The new Alliance for Sweden government also promises to cut income taxes, company taxation and unemployment benefits.

So in spite of all the rhetoric that reverberates around the EU of an "ever closer union" and all the work towards the goal of common policies across a range of political issues, two countries which have been EU members since 1995 moved in the space of two weeks in precisely opposite political directions.

The proximity of these elections helps highlight the fundamental political disagreement between Swedish and Austrian voters. But even a cursory look at recent European political history reveals this contrast is to be expected. If there is any correlation between election results in the European Union, it may be negative.

The EU's two major founding members serve as an excellent illustration.

France and Germany have had no sustained period since the days of Charles de Gaulle in which their leaders represented the same side of their country's political spectrum. Almost the entirety of Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl's 16 years as German chancellor was spent dealing with Socialist Francois Mitterand. Jacques Chirac was to follow Mitterand, but spent most of his presidency with Germany led by Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder. Until Chirac departs in May, he is the French counterpart of the new Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel. But the most popular of the potential candidates to succeed him from any party is currently Ségolène Royal -- another woman, but a Socialist.

The possible resurgence of the left in France is happening as British Conservatives have seized their first sustained leads in opinion polls since the early 1990s. In turn, the revival of the British right in 2006 coincides with the defeat of the Italian right and the return to power of the left's Romano Prodi.

These contrary political directions must discourage those whose ideal is Europe as a quasi-nation state governed by a common parliament and sharing a flag, a constitution and an anthem -- with a common policy not only in economic issues such as trade and interest rates, but in security and foreign policy.

It is certainly the case that political differences exist within countries as well as between them, with some parts of any nation more conservative than others. Red- and blue-state America is an obvious example. But it is unusual for different parts of the same country to swing in opposing political directions at the same time. Across the European Union, these divergent swings are the norm.

One can argue whether or not a European nation state or even a European superstate is desirable. But there is general agreement that before there can be a unified Europe there must be true economic convergence from Dublin to Athens.

But election results from across the continent raise a further question: How can a common foreign and security policy hope to work without a large amount of political convergence? Over and over, European voters have demonstrated an absence of political unity; different countries want to attempt different approaches to similar problems. And if they can't agree on a framework for, say, national spending, how can they possibly agree on a common policy toward, for example, Iran?

Not only have France and the Netherlands rejected the European Union constitution, but voters on the continent have shown over and over that they prefer self determination. Democracy itself seems to be the chief obstacle to the current direction of the European Union, making the goal of a politically unified Europe look increasingly like a pipedream.

Peter Cuthbertson, who recently graduated from the University of Essex, is an intern in the Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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