Nothing Sprouts From Brussels

the European Union flag, blue with stars, with our superimposed letters reading European Union, to create an EU graphic
This column was written by John O'Sullivan.
Wherever you look today in Western Europe today, the political diagnosis is the same: paralysis.

For Italy, the popular vote percentages in last week's elections say it all: Silvio Berlusconi's outgoing conservative coalition won 49.7 percent of the total vote and the incoming center-Left coalition led by former "Eurocrat" Romano Prodi gained a victorious 49.8 percent! Italy is divided right down the middle politically.

Under the rules of the Italian constitution — which give the winning party additional seats — Prodi will be handed a secure parliamentary majority. But that will not in fact remedy the stagnation of the popular vote.

Prodi's coalition is so divided between former Christian Democrats, former Communists, and still-faithful Communist true believers that it cannot unite around any reform program that is seriously contentious. It opposed Berlusconi's modest labor market reform — temporary contracts for younger workers to reduce youth unemployment — in the election campaign. So there is little or no prospect of Prodi adopting the wider labor market flexibility, pension reform, or tax cuts that Italy badly needs.

Result: paralysis.

Almost the same is true of Angela Merkel's "Grand Coalition" of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany. Ms. Merkel is winning golden opinions for her deft handling of foreign policy which, among other achievements, has restored good relations between Berlin and Washington.

That is because Merkel, as Chancellor, enjoys a relatively free hand on diplomacy. On domestic economic reforms, however, she will need to win the support of both her socialist ministers and a parliament that has a left-wing majority. Many observers forget that the center-right actually lost ground in last year's German elections when the combined parties of the Left — the social democrats, the Greens, and the Left — gained an extra forty seats.

Merkel became Chancellor only because of a recent political tradition that the party with the single largest number of seats should head the government. She therefore presides over a schizophrenic administration that is dubious about an economic reform program which probably could not win a parliamentary vote even if all her socialist colleagues were enthusiastically in favor of it. Unless early elections grant her a real center-right majority, Merkel must accept "reforms" that make no real difference.

Result: paralysis again.

In France's undeclared constitution, riots compete with elections as the means of determining government policy. Last week the center-right government headed by President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin withdrew a reform bill that would have allowed French employers to fire young workers without going through expensive legal procedures.

That bill had been originally passed because young men, mainly unemployed and mainly of North African extraction — the so-called "beurs" — had rioted and burned cars and buildings in cities throughout France. The beurs rioted, de Villepin argued, because they had been excluded from the world of work by laws that made it risky and expensive to hire workers who could not then be fired. Youth unemployment in France is 28 percent. The first step to integrating these underprivileged young people, therefore, was to deregulate employment — at least for those under twenty-six. They would have a better chance of getting a first job if it wasn't a job guaranteed for life.

Once the law was passed, however, French middle-class students rioted in favor of its repeal. After all, they were getting jobs for life. Employers who could not fire workers naturally hired those whom they knew or who looked safe, respectable, and French. Students who fitted this description could look forward to the privilege of secure lifetime employment. And they marched, rioted, threw stones, and attacked police in defense of this privilege and against the new law.