Did 9/11 Snuff the European Left?

Italy, Denmark, and Portugal turn center-right. Are Germany, France, Holland, and Sweden next?

Sometimes, dealing with current events feels like counting grains of sand as they slip through one’s fingers. Just as journalists have focused on a particular situation, just as columnists have formulated their views, just as politicians have begun to implement a policy—the whole thing changes.

Quite a lot of people may be about to feel this way about Western Europe, which until recently has been almost completely dominated by the center-left. With Tony Blair’s Labor Party running Britain, social democrats running Germany and France, and left-wing parties in charge of most of Scandinavia and Benelux, Europe seemed, of late, to speak with one voice. In recent years, most of the European leadership espoused the same social-democratic economic policies, the same criticisms of American-style capitalism, American culture, and American foreign policy. Partly as a result, the very first meetings between European leaders and President Bush, who is not very left-wing, went rather badly. According to one account, Bush’s otherwise inexplicable fondness for Vladimir Putin dates from his first trip to Europe last spring, when Putin was virtually the only politician he met who didn’t want to harangue him about the Kyoto Treaty. In gratitude, Bush invited him to his Texas ranch.

Now all that may be about to change. One after another, in election after election, center-left governments in Europe are falling. Last spring, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia swept the Italian general elections. In November, Danish elections brought economic liberals to power for the first time in 80 years. After elections last weekend, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, another economic liberal and admirer of Margaret Thatcher, looked set to become Portugal’s prime minister. He’ll have friendly neighbors across the border, in the center-right government of Spain. Now only Tony Blair, himself a self-described admirer of Thatcher and hardly a mainstream member of the Euro-left, seems secure. Elections are due to be held this year in Germany, France, Holland, and Sweden. In all of those countries, polls indicate a possible swing to parties of the center-right.         

True, this doesn’t necessarily mean more soul mates for George Bush. For the record, the winning party in Portugal is called the “Social Democrats” (the losers were “Socialists”), and Denmark’s new rulers belong to the Venstre Party, venstre being Danish for “left.” In their origins, traditions, and culture, the new Euro-right parties don’t necessarily have much in common, either with one another or with the Republican Party in the United States. They do, however, share an opposition to the status quo, which was beautifully portrayed last weekend at the Barcelona Summit of European Union leaders. The summit was meant to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to its 10-year plan to turn itself into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy in the world” and to its promise to create “20 million new jobs” by 2010. But not only are most countries behind on their pledges to liberalize their economies, the very premise of the meeting alone tells you everything you need to know about why Europe’s economies seem so sclerotic: Since when can 15 men, meeting in a room, create 20 million jobs?

The truth is that most of Europe—Britain is an exception—is in recession, and the old solutions, prepared and promoted by the EU and by the European left, aren’t working. The new right-wing parties may not have all the answers either, but they do have different answers, or at least answers that sound different to Europeans. Berlusconi won in Italy because he seemed to many Italians, rightly or wrongly, to represent a break with the politics of the past—and because he promised to cut taxes. Portugal’s new leader won because he promised to privatize state industry, pare back the civil service—and cut taxes. In Holland, the popular, maverick politician Pim Fortuyn, who is both bald and gay, wants to reduce crime—and cut taxes. Among other things, the German Christian Democrats’ candidate for chancellor, Edmund Stoiber, says he wants to cut taxes, too.

They also have answers that sound a lot better now than they did six months ago. Just as the growing gap between American and Soviet military technology once scared Mikhail Gorbachev into launching glasnost, so too does the war in Afghanistan seem to have scared Europeans. The United States now seems light-years ahead of everyone else—and everyone else, even if they aren’t in conflict with the United States, is worried about it. Suddenly, Europe wants to emulate America’s perceived economic success—which means, among other things, privatizing, liberalizing, and cutting taxes.

Finally, for better or for worse, Sept. 11 had another kind of impact as well. Along with cutting taxes, a number of Europe’s conservative politicians favor greater controls on immigration than have been in place in recent years. This is certainly true of the Danes and the Italians, as well as of the Dutch politician Fortuyn, who was widely condemned for saying that the number of Muslims living in Holland was too high. While his wording was unfortunate, it is true that the number of Muslims living in Holland is indeed very large—5 percent, according to the Economistgiven that Holland is a small and relatively homogenous country, with no tradition of mass immigration. In the wake of Sept. 11, the large numbers of illegal immigrants, not only in Holland but in Italy, France, and Germany, have suddenly seemed a less benign presence, and it has suddenly seemed more acceptable to say so. The fact that a number of the hijackers had lived for many years in Europe, collecting European welfare benefits, was not lost on anybody.

Whatever the reason, the tectonic plates are shifting. Thanks to last weekend’s Portuguese elections, free market liberalizers—whether called “Social Democrats” or “Labor” or “Left”—now hold the majority of votes on Europe’s ruling body, the European Council, and in the European parliament. More changes may come. What appears, at the moment, to be solidly entrenched European opposition to the United States—not just to U.S. foreign policy, but to what the French call “Anglo-Saxon economics”—may not be as permanent as it looks.