The Right-Wing Resurrection

With Silvio Berlusconi regaining power in Italy, Europe's right-wing parties can look out proudly on a continent they control. From north to south and east to west, Europe is painted blue. Social democrats hold ministers' jobs in coalition governments in Germany and the Netherlands, but governments there are headed by the right. Just three of the European Union member states—Britain, Spain and Portugal—are governed exclusively by the left. The arrival of Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist politician, as mayor of Rome and the good showing of Boris Johnson, the populist Tory Euro-skeptic, as mayor of London completes the triumphant march of the European right into the corridors of power. In Brussels, a successful attempt by the conservative president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to become president of the European Union at the expense of the left's leading contender, Tony Blair, would further confirm the dominance of Europe's conservatives as the continent's political masters. (A decision is expected later this year.)

Not since the 19th-century concert of nations, when reactionary conservatives like Metternich, Talleyrand and Wellington stamped hard on liberal and proto-labor politics that challenged kings and emperors, has Europe seen so many right-wing politicians ruling the roost.

A decade ago it seemed very different. A majority of Europe's countries had center-left parties in power. Bill Clinton genially presided over gatherings of Blair, France's Lionel Jospin, Germany's Gerhard Schröder and Sweden's Goran Persson to pontificate grandly on progressive governance. But these left-liberal talkfests produced no enduring political program or vision. True, some center-left leaders like Blair can point to job creation and growth. But they managed only to manage, not change, their nations. The 1968 generation found itself in office but uncertain how to use government power to make its wishes reality.

But now that Europe's conservatives have won so much power, what are they going to do with it? The answer, alas, appears to be not much. Postwar conservatism had big leaders with a clear sense of destiny, like Churchill in Britain, de Gaulle in France and Adenauer in West Germany. They had their differences and limitations but exuded a sense of authority and belief in a value system shaped by the horrors of the first half of the last century. These conservatives created social capitalism, resisted communism and upheld Roman Catholicism and Judeo-Christian values. The big thinkers of the day, like Friedrich von Hayek, showed the futility of the state's seeking to own and plan the economy. Raymond Aron stood as a tolerant rock against admiration for Stalin and Mao by intellectuals and French and Italian communists. Conservative Catholics like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman created the European Common Market and forced the liberalization of economies, which allowed Europe to post growth rates between 1950 and 1975 that we now see only in Asia. Conservatives forged an Atlantic alliance and ignored the anti-American ideologues who argued that NATO equaled U.S. control of Europe.

Today's conservatives running Europe have plenty of ministerial limousines, but they have no leaders, thinkers or philosophies. European capitalism is atrophying. France's Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac with the pledge to make people work harder and longer so France would again be the nation of Enrichissez-vous! (Get rich!), the injunction of bourgeois France in the 19th century. But Sarkozy is a disappointment. He jet-sets around the world with his stunning wife, Carla, but growth is dropping in France. Every time a market-opening reform is proposed, like having more taxis in Paris or allowing competition among pharmacies, France's vested interests block it. Sarkozy is repeating the mistake of all his predecessors by trying to borrow his way out of trouble.

Germany has recovered its zest for exports, but this is largely due to the tough medicine imposed by Schröder; he held down wages to allow investment to take place. His successor, Angela Merkel, has no idea how to change Germany's thinking to reduce the 4 million-strong unemployment queue. Berlusconi has already had two attempts at applying his business brio to Italy's economy and government, which cannot even get rubbish off the streets of Naples. Third time lucky? No one in Italy is counting on it. Instead, his mid-April victory was followed two weeks later by the election of Alemanno, the first right-winger to become mayor of Rome in decades. His plan for the city includes expelling 20,000 foreign undesirables.

Europe's conservatives appear to have turned their back on the golden rule of conservatism: less state, lower taxes and more market. In Britain, once home to Margaret Thatcher, the Amazonian queen of rightist politics, Gordon Brown's Labour government cuts taxes while David Cameron's Tory party pledges more state money for health and defense and to subsidize a bankrupt postal service. Sweden's Moderate Party—once known as the Conservative Party—ousted the Swedish Social Democrats two years ago, but economic growth has slowed down, taking government popularity to such lows that most assume the left will win back power at the next election. On foreign policy, conservatives who once were ready to be tough to defend European democracy coddle up to the semi-authoritarian Russia. Conservative politicians who once championed human rights in communist Poland or Czechoslovakia are now silent on the daily abuse of core democratic rights in China. Conservatives who once built bulwarks to stop totalitarianism from contaminating European politics now accept handouts for Islamic centers financed by the Saudis to promote the Jew-hating, homophobic and misogynist Islamism of Wahhabi preachers.

Far from strengthening NATO, Germany's center-right leader, Merkel, blocked efforts to help Ukraine move toward a Euro-Atlantic future. The conservative government of Greece stopped a brave small democracy like Macedonia from joining NATO in an argument over its name that was little more elevated than the row among Swift's Lilliputians over whether a boiled egg should be cracked at its big or small end. Meanwhile, defense spending under European conservatives plunges to a record low at a time when Europe claims it wants to promote its presence everywhere in the world. Churchill, Adenauer and de Gaulle are turning in their graves.