Rise of the Eurocons

Why the continent's conservative moment won't last.

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time since the early 1990s, the map of Europe is overwhelmingly colored true conservative blue. David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition in Britain ensures that right-leaning governments dominate the political landscape. As Cameron meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, it could be tempting to think that the right has never had it so good.

It’s not just the "Big Three" either. Whatever else he is, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is certainly a man of the right. Conservative parties also rule in Poland, Sweden, Hungary (after their recent thumping victory there), and the Netherlands, at least until next month’s elections.

The young, telegenic Cameron has been compared to Tony Blair in his efforts to modernize a moribund political party and expand its appeal beyond the traditional base. Yet unlike with Blair and Bill Clinton’s "Third Way" a dozen years ago, there will be no international pow-wows dedicated to retooling conservatism for the next decade. The "Third Way" project was supposed to construct a narrative and framework for an international "progressive" alliance. But it never actually built anything of any importance: a reminder, perhaps, that even in the Age of Globalization, most politics remains local.

In the case of the Conservative governments sitting uneasily in London, Paris, and Berlin, it’s unlikely they will even try a project on the scale of the Third Way. Cameron’s relations with the leading European conservative parties are cool. The new prime minister may agree with Merkel and Sarkozy that modest fiscal restraint is needed this year to begin the process of moving towards long-term economic stability, but it is not obvious that they can, or will, agree on much else. For the most part, British Conservatives prefer to look west to the U.S. Republican Party for inspiration rather than to Paris or Berlin. Across a range of issues — from defense and the future of NATO to free trade — Britain’s instincts remain reflexively Atlanticist, not European.

Domestically too, many of Cameron’s backbenchers would like Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, replacing E.U. legal supremacy with a British "Bill of Rights". That idea, problematic and complicated in equal measure, has been farmed out to a government review commission for now but it will, in time, return to complicate Cameron’s relationship with the other great European powers.

Among the first actions Cameron took upon becoming leader of his party was to leave the main center-right grouping in the European Parliament. Cameron argued that it made little sense for a Euroskeptic party such as the Tories to sit with "federalist" parties such as Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Sarkozy’s UMP.

The new grouping — mostly with right-wing and nationalist parties from Eastern Europe — was supposed to please the Tory party base, but the extremist xenophobic views of some of these parties became an issue in the election campaign. (Embarrassingly, during one of the leaders’ debates, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and now deputy prime minister, described Cameron’s new European Parliament allies as "nutters.") It was a reminder that, in its heart, the modern Conservative party is fundamentally opposed to the great European project. Under Cameron, there is now a three-speed Europe: the Eurozone, countries outside the Eurozone, and Britain.

How long even that arrangement lasts, however, is questionable. The Greek crisis threatens to make or break the European project one way or the other. If, despite the unprecedented "shock and awe" bailout designed to save Athens, the intervention fails, then two options remain: Either Greece leaves the Eurozone and is, perhaps, followed by other countries or, in the longer term, Greece survives and the Eurozone inches closer to a full fiscal and political union.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble — a Christian Democrat — suggested the latter should be an option this week. "Political union naturally means a bit of federalism in the German sense of federal," he said. "It means that one can no longer take certain decisions on a national level. That is very hard for the U.K."

It had been thought that the pace of EU expansion to the east over the last decade — there are now 27 member states with others such as Croatia negotiating membership — had put a brake on the full-scale federalization of Europe. Within the Eurozone, however, the present difficulties have given ardent federalists a crisis they dare not waste.

Any moves to transfer more power from national capitals to Brussels and Strasbourg will be fiercely resisted in Britain. Indeed, they could bring down Cameron’s government, since Europe is the single most dangerous fault-line between his Conservatives and his new coalition partners, the Euro-friendly Liberal Democrats. Nor will Britain find it easy to swallow increased financial regulation, given the extent to which the Treasury depends upon financial services receipts.

Conservatism’s continent-wide ascendancy may be short-lived anyway. Sarkozy’s approval ratings are slumping and the right was routed in the latest round of regional elections. Just as troublingly for the president, if IMF Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn returns from Washington to lead the Socialists, the French left will have its most capable, attractive candidate since it last won the presidency in 1988.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Merkel’s Christian Democrats were hammered in recent regional elections in the wake of the Greek bailout. Voters remain unhappy that, as always, it falls to productive German workers to bail out free-spending governments in other parts of the Eurozone. If the Greek bailout fails, or if the contagion spreads to Portugal or Spain, even Germany’s ability — and willingness — to pay for Europe may be tested beyond breaking point. That in turn would make Merkel’s position extremely uncomfortable.

Add in predicted losses for the right in Sweden and the Netherlands, and it may be that Cameron’s victory could come to be seen not as the dawning of a new conservative moment, but as the right’s last victory before Europe inevitably swings back to the left. Once again, Britain seems to be out of step with the continent.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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