As they honor George H.W. Bush and take note of the latest implausible speculation about Robert Mueller’s inquiry and related matters, Americans should be aware of the deterioration of the political institutions and governments of Europe.
France only a few months ago was widely looked to as a likely source of political renovation that could incite and encourage modernization in other Western countries. Today, the place is in a state of widespread disorder. Masses of people associated initially because they dislike the hypocrisy of raising gasoline taxes in the name of preserving the world from the threat of climate change, connected by social media, and wearing yellow safety vests as a uniform, have arisen to demonstrate and riot around the country—as only the French know how to do. The Arc de Triomphe, among the world’s most admired monuments, was liberally daubed with graffiti (where were the police?) over the weekend, and on Sunday France awoke to the disagreeable fragrance of arson and scorched automobiles.
In one sense, these malcontents—“gilets jaunes” as they are called for their yellow vests—are doing the world a favor. They are telling the immense coalition of Marxists, eco-alarmists, camp-followers, dupes, and garden variety political cowards that they will not put up with this bunk about climate change requiring drastic reductions in carbon emissions and therefore justifying absurdly high fuel prices as the world oil price declines. This was too easily accessible an escape hatch for political leaders who have no idea how to square the circle of bloated public expenditures, sorely irritated taxpayers, bourgeois insistence on retention of some value for our currencies which have no value other than in relation to each other, and the irresistible temptation to promise to spend more.
After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led in reducing personal income tax and their economies soared and they were heavily reelected, Tony Blair devised the stealth tax, and there were relatively invisible imposts slapped on every conceivable activity apart from spontaneous sex and basic ablutions. He replicated Thatcher’s feat of three straight terms (the only British leaders to have done so since the First Reform Act expanded the electorate in 1832), but then left office. His chancellor, Gordon Brown, took the bullet: the government was thrown out and the British Labour Party is now in the hands of an unreconstructed and virulently anti-Semitic Marxist, Jeremy Corbyn.
Facing him is the minority government of Theresa May, committed to effect the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union on March 29, 2019, with a proposal Europe has accepted, but 40 percent of her own Conservative Members of Parliament have already rejected. It appears to have no chance of passing in Parliament, which almost certainly will lead to the Conservative parliamentary delegation withdrawing support from Mrs. May and electing a new leader, committed to a more unambiguous departure from the crumbling Dutch-Belgian bureaucracy of Europe as it is. The Conservatives will have to show a great deal more dexterity than they have for many years to fend off Corbyn’s no-confidence motion, since nearly half the governing party has no confidence in the government. One slip and there will be a general election with the Conservatives scrambling to install a new leader and write a new platform as the 33-day statutory British election campaign begins.
There has not been such tumult in the Mother of Parliaments since 1940, when the appeaser Neville Chamberlain was dumped and Winston Churchill, the logical replacement and the veteran of 39 years in Parliament and the holder of nine different cabinet positions—including the Exchequer, the Home Office, Trade, Colonies, War, the Air Force, Munitions, and the greatest Navy in the world in both world wars—was vested by King George VI with practically unlimited powers as head of a national unity all-party government. To say Churchill was qualified was an understatement. At least then the situation was so desperate, there was no question of an election and there was general recognition that Churchill was the man. The British aren’t about to have to defend their island home from the Nazis, but the country has been mismanaged into a serious state of disarray.
The problem is Europe. It is a straddle between government by the major powers—Germany, the U.K., and France, with a nod to Italy when it has a functioning government, and the parliament of Europe in Strasbourg that has no coherence and little jurisdiction. Brussels micro-regulates everything. The Germans are accustomed to regimentation and don’t notice; the French and Italians consider all government a nuisance and ignore it, and the British like to be law-abiding but will not tolerate such authoritarianism.
Power is delegated to dreadful little Belgian and Dutch elves and gnomes exorcising the frustrations of being little countries and abusing their usurped powers to the irritation of the 265 million people in the four principal countries. (The Spanish, Poles, Czechs, Austrians, Hungarians and Greeks are not thrilled either.) No one except, in their way, the British, are showing any leadership in how to deal with the congestive breakdown of the great European ideal.
The likeliest successors to Theresa May, with or without a general election, are former London mayor and foreign secretary Boris Johnson, and eminent caucus Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg. Both are impressive and either could be the new person Europe needs, as Emmanuel Macron fades, flame and smoke obscuring his still recent campaign posters from last year.
Conditions in Germany are just as worrisome.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her chief coalition partner, both leaders of shrinking parties, are now clinging like drowning people to each other but sinking together. The opposition is fragmented between the reasonable but limited pro-enterprise Free Democrats, the very eccentric and militant Greens (who have already pushed Merkel to roll back nuclear power and make Germany dependent on Russian natural gas), the Alternative party which is moving steadily farther right and may actually entertain some of the views falsely imputed to Donald Trump, and the Link—the shriveled and embittered detritus of the old East German Communists. No easily visible successor to Merkel in the grand coalition looks adequate to reverse trends and no combination of the opposition parties looks remotely capable of governing. An ungovernable Germany is a historic menace.
Germany and France have both shaken the world before. Britain and France have on occasion inspired it. All three could do either now. The United States has saved Europe before, too.
It would greatly improve the quality of political conversation in Washington, in this week when it says farewell to a man who was a pillar of service to the nation in war and peace, nearly 45 years from combat hero to commander-in-chief, to set aside Muelleresque intrigue and cable news inanities, and recognize the condition of our esteemed allies.
The G20 meetings over the weekend in Buenos Aires demonstrated what we already knew: Trump and Xi will work it out. Putin is a scoundrel and a gadfly, and there are strong regional players, especially Japan and India. But the stability of the world requires that Western Europe rediscover its talent for self-government, which it spent centuries trying to impart to others.
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