May 8, 2002


A Lot Is Still Wrong With the European Right (FREDERICK KEMPE, May 8, 2002, Wall St Journal)
At first glance, it would seem that center-right parties are on a roll across Europe. President Jacques Chirac was re-elected Sunday by the widest margin in
French history. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is finishing his first year atop Italy. Right-of-center parties rule in Austria, Denmark, Ireland and Luxembourg.

President Jose Maria Aznar, who for some time was the only conservative leader ruling a major European state, still runs an economically revived Spain. And in September, Bavaria's Edmund Stoiber has a fair chance to take leadership of Europe's slowest and biggest economy from the Social Democrats' Gerhard Schroeder. Even in Britain, a right-center Tony Blair leads a left-center Labour.

Yet it's hard for the center-right to celebrate any new political wind favoring freer markets and individual initiative amid Europe's ugly new stench of intolerance. It was the intensifying politics of hate that likely produced the Monday murder of Holland's anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn and the killing in March of a senior Italian official whose job was to reform Italy's labor market. It is the politics of hate that has synagogues burning and helps Le Pen reach the French election's final round.

The center-right must seize the moral high ground if it wants to maintain political momentum, but it faces obstacles: a foggy message to voters, political fragmentation, moral ambiguity and distasteful alliances with the intolerant and sometimes racist right. These dangers threaten the center-right's chance to create a more dynamic Europe as the EU approaches a critical time of self-definition. Its constitutional convention has begun, and eastward enlargement is just around the corner.

With so much at stake and so many dangers for the center-right to overcome, a leading British conservative European parliamentarian, James Elles, is convening a gathering of fellow European and national parliamentarians in late August at Christ's Church College in Oxford. The agenda, backed by Britain's conservatives and the European parliament's group of 31 center-right parties: to create a European-wide network that can generate ideas to turn this political swing into a historic moment.

Says Mr. Elles: "It doesn't matter how favorable the winds are if you don't set your sails in the right way . . . We're now in a position where we have to decide how big we want this golden opportunity to be." Indeed, Mr. Elles sees a chance to help forge a "new global compassionate conservatism" building off European change and George W. Bush's victory, in a way more lasting than the Clintonian-led and now fizzled Third Way. He notes that George W. Bush Sr. is taking over leadership of the International Democratic Union, the worldwide gathering of conservatives, from the leader of Britain's Conservatives, William Hague, at its June meeting.

Yet one shouldn't underestimate the European center-right's capability to fritter away this historic chance. Soviet collapse, socialist failure in Europe and economic logic have dealt center-right parties a powerful hand. But if they don't deal promptly with their own moral ambiguity and the extreme right--and generate the clear ideas Mr. Elles wants--they will find left-wing parties regrouping at the center and retaking the initiative in next elections.

At this point, judging by the bizarre conservative embrace of the radical Right's mantra of victimization, you'd have to say it's an open question whether genuine conservatism can be revived in Europe. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 8, 2002 11:09 AM
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