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'To the Right, march!'

American stereotypes notwithstanding, Europe’s conservatives are set for comeback. Analysis by's Michael Moran.

It is popular in some American circles these days to view Europe as a continent of coddled socialists, prone to appeasing dictators and fits of sanctimonious ingratitude in its dealings with the United States.

To be sure, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence available to the traveling correspondent interested, as the media generally is, in reinforcing this broad American stereotype.

It is no coincidence, either, that the best headline of the Iraq war came from the editors of the New York Post, who dubbed France and Germany the “axis of weasel.” Even among those who lamented the lack of nuance and foresight that characterized policies on both sides of the Atlantic, the comic relief was welcome. And few things sell newspapers (or attract clicks) as well as an ethnic slur.

Today, however, an American expecting to encounter a continent united and mobilized in opposition to the hyperpower will be disappointed. To be sure, the groups who formed the hard inner core of the million-strong peace marches of a year ago can be contacted and relied upon to compare George Bush with Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun or some similar ancestor of today’s continentals.

What you won’t find is any expression of this sentiment in the political mainstream, nor any drift to the Left in Europe’s major powers. Indeed, the most striking feature of the European Union’s current political landscape is the resurgence of the Right. From Spain’s ruling Popular Party and Italy’s Forza Italia, both of which supported the war, to the pro-business conservative and far-right groupings of France and Britain, polls show a deep discontent with the center left.

Not all roads lead to Baghdad
There are several explanations for this, and many of them have nothing to do with the war in Iraq or the country’s relationship with America. In Spain, for instance, polls ahead of a general election due on March 14 indicate that conservative People’s Party of Jose Maria Aznar is likely to win an outright majority in the country’s parliament in spite of Aznar’s somewhat controversial decision to send Spanish troops to topple Saddam.

“There has not been the kind of backlash that many expected,” says Charles Kupchan, an American specialist on Europe with the Council on Foreign Relations.

As in many nations, Kupchan and other analysts say, the influence of the Iraq debate on Europe politics is waning quickly. In Spain and in France, polls suggest pocket-book and regional issues are tops in voters’ minds. In France, for instance, which also votes later this year, the economy, immigration and domestic security against terrorism dominate parliamentary campaigns. In fact, current French polls suggest the far-Right National Front may be the big winners this year as security conscious voters warm to the message of veteran anti-immigrant campaigner Jean Marie Le Pen.

In Italy, Poland and Denmark, too, conservative governments that risked standing with the United States over Iraq remain firmly ensconced in power. Again, the pro-war stance brought multitudes into the streets in each place, but whatever irritation remains is not throwing the game to the opposition.

In Germany, the conservative opposition -- never pro-war, but deeply disturbed by the lengths that Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was willing to go in opposing it -- also has seen its fortunes rise in the polls. Even in Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair co-authored the war’s script in defiance of many in his own left-of-center Labor Party, it is the opposition Conservatives feeling buoyed. Led by a reinvigorated former minister of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, Michael Howard, the Tories managed in the past few weeks to enunciate the tricky case that centrist Democrats in the United States have tried but failed to make. Namely, that a war to remove Saddam Hussein was a valid exercise, but that the man in power resorted unnecessarily to lies and subterfuge to get it done.

More importantly, though, Howard has -- much against the principles of his Tory party, chosen to oppose Blair’s plan to dare to charge a tuition for British university students. Next to this perceived outrage, Blair’s Iraq troubles pale.

Changing the guard?
Cyclical political shifts may also be at work. In Britain and Germany, both Blair and Schroeder owe their offices to the rejection of conservative parties that were in power for a decade and more when the Cold War ended. Viewed from an American perspective, they are Bill Clinton’s generation. Having themselves ruled now for seven and six years respectively, they may each be past their political prime.

Heralding a shift to the Right in Europe is one thing; extrapolating from that some kind of sea change in European attitudes about the Iraq war is quite another. While it is true, for instance, that Germany’s conservative opposition, the Christian Democrats and their allies, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, sharply criticized Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for pandering to anti-war sentiment to seal his reelection in 2002, there is no indication that a revival of the old CDU/CSU governing partnership that kept Helmut Kohl in power for much of the 1980s and 1990s would have led Germany to vote for war in the Security Council without considerable more debate and another round of U.N. inspections.

“Many here would have been happy to see American power harnessed for the sake of ridding the world of [Saddam] Hussein,” a prominent CDU foreign policy specialist says. “We feel Schroeder was cynical about it. But Bush also got impatient. He resented having to win the argument before he started shooting.”

Similarly, the Right’s resurgence in France might not entail any change in the country’s attitude toward the unilateral use of American military power. Right and Left simply don’t split that way in France. The French threat to veto any new Iraq war resolution last year, the move that led the Bush administration to halt its efforts to win U.N. approval, was viewed as folly in the boardrooms of French multinational corporations as well as among French internationalists who see America’s military power as an essential component in any effort to enforce human rights around the planet.

The veto threat “was a mistake, and the only possible way of triumphing over Saddam Hussein, a well-known murderer, would have been collective action,” says Bernard Kouchner, a former socialist minister and head of the U.N.’s post-war civilian authority in Kosovo. Speaking to Newsweek’s French edition this week, Kouchner said the Bush administration failed to respect even the most fundamental rules of international law in launching the war. But, he adds, “betraying Colin Powell was a political error. Why did (French Foreign Minister Dominique) de Villepin .. threaten the use of a French veto at a press conference? After, we were doomed. Powell was our ally.”

There are those in Washington drawing links between a host of new developments, from the settlement of Sudan’s civil war and Libya’s agreement to give up its pursuit of WMD, to the new India-Pakistan peace dialogue. These same people will surely claim credit, too, if the next round of elections in Europe bring conservatives to power. But  equating “Right” with pro-American is not as easy as it was the last time conservatives held sway in Britain and Germany. After all, viewed though French eyes, Jacques Chirac and his mentor, Charles De Gaulle, are conservatives, too.