updated 9/19/2005 2:51:31 PM ET 2005-09-19T18:51:31

Priorities on Europe’s “to-do” list: Ensure that Iran is not building nuclear weapons, lift millions out of unemployment, revive stuttering economies, prevent political extremes from gaining ground and respond to China’s rise.

But with leading European nations — France, Italy and now Germany — hamstrung by the weakness of their political leaders, it is hard to see how much will get done. That is not good news for the United States, which hopes for help from a strong Europe in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East and in the protracted war on terror.

The inconclusive outcome of the closely fought election in Germany — Europe’s biggest economy yet one of the most sluggish — only deepens the prospects for stagnation on the continent at a time when pressing domestic and international problems call for decisiveness.

Hopes that the vote might usher in bold German economic reforms that would spill across borders have been dealt a blow. Rather than embarking on a fresh start under revitalized leadership, Germany saw its political leaders begin the tortuous process of trying to form a new government.

The muddled result from Germany suggested to some that voters recognize the need for reform but do not want the necessary pain. It enabled opposing sides in Europe to claim victory with no clear direction either way.

In the meantime, there is no obvious candidate nation to lead Europe forward while Germany sorts itself out.

Blair’s call unheeded so far
British Prime Minister Tony Blair says the European Union must streamline its bureaucracy, embrace globalization, spend more on science, technology and research and less on propping up farmers in France if it hopes to compete against growing powers like China.

But Blair has yet to find the EU allies he needs to impose his will on the 25-nation bloc.

France, for its part, has looked rudderless since it split down the middle in a referendum in May over the EU’s future. Jacques Chirac’s recent hospitalization — a blood vessel problem blurred the nearly 73-year-old president’s eyesight — left him looking even more like a lame duck. Ugly battles to replace him in elections in 2007 are dividing his center-right camp and the fractured opposition Socialist Party.

In the wake of Sunday’s election, arguments over the way forward for ailing continental Europe seem more unresolved than ever. Should Germany, France and Italy embrace Anglo-Saxon-style reforms, cutting costly welfare programs and freeing up labor markets?

The European left claimed that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s comeback showed that voters opposed the bolder reforms advocated by his conservative challenger, Angela Merkel.

French conservative applauds results
But conservative French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who hopes his proposals to shake up France will win him the presidency in 2007, sent Merkel a congratulatory message saying, “The trust that German voters showed in you confirms that the ideas and values that we share are correct.”

The French Communist Party, meanwhile, said Schroeder’s center-left coalition and Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats were both punished at the ballot box. It trumpeted the advance made by Germany’s new Left Party, made up of ex-communists and left-wing defectors from Schroeder’s Social Democrats.

Weakness in the political middle ground in Europe could, some fear, play into the hands of extremes: the far left opposed to any pruning of welfare and labor rules that businesses say make firing-and-hiring difficult, and the far right that would shut the door to immigrants needed for Europe’s labor force.

“What is happening in Germany is extremely serious and serves as a reminder of what is going on in our country,” said French former education minister Francois Fillon.

“We have, in effect, a real crisis of confidence in both countries with regard to the institutions and the political parties that traditionally govern.”

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