TCS Daily

Lamely at the Top

By Gareth Harding - May 10, 2006 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- European politicians often wonder why voters don't trust them, are turned off by politics and refuse to show up at polling stations on election day. A quick scan of recent newspaper headlines may help provide an answer.

In France, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has never been elected to public office and has seen his popularity ratings slump after the bungled introduction of a much-needed labor reform law, is accused of aiming to tarnish his arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy by launching an investigation into alleged kickbacks to the interior minister. De Villepin's equally unpopular boss, President Jacques Chirac, is likely to be hauled before the judges when his term of office ends next year for a series of dodgy party financing deals that took place while he was mayor of Paris. So much for integrity.

Meanwhile, Le Monde last week ran a report cataloguing Foreign Minister Dominique Douste-Blazy's gaffes. On a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial last September, the Chirac loyalist -- who speaks no foreign language and has confused Taiwan and Thailand and Croatia with Kosovo -- stopped at a map recording Europe's Jewish communities before and after World War II. "Were there no Jews killed in Britain?" he asked. "But Mr. Minister, Britain was never occupied by the Nazis," replied the curator. To which Douste-Blazy added: "But were no Jews expelled from Britain?" So much for diplomacy.

In Italy, now former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is himself likely to stand trial on corruption charges, refused to concede defeat until three weeks after the country's highest court declared he had lost the elections. His successor, 66-year-old former European Commission President Romano Prodi, immediately faced a political crisis after his communist coalition partners threatened to walk out of government unless their man was handed the influential job of House speaker. Unreconstructed communist Fausto Bertinotti -- also 66 -- was duly elected to the post, while 73-year-old Franco Marini, fended off a challenge from former premier Giulio Andreotti, 87, to become Senate speaker. Andreotti then put himself forward as candidate to succeed Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, 85, as Italian president, but Prodi opted to back 80-year-old Giorgio Napolitano for the position. So much for new blood.

Few would accuse British Prime Minister Tony Blair of lacking leadership -- for much of the last decade he has been one of the few European politicians combining vision, charisma and a fair dose of mettle -- but his premiership now looks to be on life-support, with senior members of his cabinet doing their best to flick the switch off. Within the space of three days at the end of April, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott admitted to having a torrid two-year affair with his secretary; Interior Minister Charles Clarke confessed that more than 1,000 criminals awaiting deportation had gone missing; and Health Minister Patricia Hewitt got booed and heckled for telling health care workers that Britain's health service had enjoyed its "best year ever." So much for setting an example.

For several years it has been clear that the current set of European leaders, with the possible exception of Blair, have been either unwilling or unable to push through the sort of deep-seated social and economic reforms EU states desperately need. Yet there has always been a vague hope the next generation of leaders would be more open to change. That increasingly looks like wishful thinking.

Sarkozy, the man most likely to succeed Chirac as French president, used to talk of the need for France to make a clean break with its past. Not any more. "Sarko" refused to back the hire-and-fire labor law that brought millions onto the streets of France; he champions a protectionist trade policy and has watered down plans to trim the country's bloated public sector. He is, to put it mildly, no Margaret Thatcher.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel used to welcome comparisons with Britain's Iron Lady. But her decision to enter into a grand coalition with the left-leaning Social Democrats has effectively scotched any prospect of radical reform, leaving Merkel free to focus -- with some degree of success -- on foreign policy.

Blair's likely replacement, Finance Minister Gordon Brown, has presided over almost a decade of economic growth, low unemployment and high investment in public services. But the dour Scot has none of Blair's flair and is rooted in "old Labour" thinking. On present polling, he will be beaten by the Conservative's youngish leader David Cameron at the next election.

Europe's problems are well-documented: aging populations, creaking welfare systems, rigid labor markets, failing integration and immigration policies, anemic defense budgets and ballooning public debts. The solutions -- breaking cartels, freeing up trade, upping R+D expenditure, introducing more flexible labor laws, weaning farmers and fishermen off generous subsidies and welcoming more immigrants -- are also widely shared. But finding leaders brave enough to enact often unpopular reforms without caving into the mob and kowtowing to entrenched interests is proving an altogether more arduous task.

The author is a free-lance journalist based in Brussels.



Bleak outlook
The longer that a society tolerates socialistic solutions to problems not amenable to socialistic solutions, the more difficult it is to incorporate something that actually will succeed.

It took a Maggie Thatcher to revive a moribund economy that was England. The UK swallowed the medicine and now realizes that the EU may not be the grandest concept since sliced bread.

There doesn't appear to be another Thatcher in Europe's present or future, unless it's Pope Benedict.

Stop it first
European leaders, and the EU parliament, should first stop doing harm to the economy. The constant flood of regulations from Brussels do a lot to stop innovation and stem entrepreneurship. It has gone so far that most - if not all - businesses are illegal. My own company breaks at least a 1000 regulations, and then there are some 80 000 pages of laws and regulations that we haven't assessed yet...

Franz Kafka was a psycic, nowadays we all live "outside the process".

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