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Commentary | JOHN MICKLETHWAIT AND ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE

With a Jab From Anglo-Saxons, Chirac and Schroeder Go Down for the Count

June 06, 2005|JOHN MICKLETHWAIT AND ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE | John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who work for the Economist, co-wrote "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" (Penguin, 2004).

There are many ways to view the tumultuous events of last week. Do the French "non" and the Dutch "nee" herald the end of Europe or a new beginning? Are they a victory for democracy or raw populism? The cafes of the Rive Gauche and the wine bars of Islington are already filling with unshaven intellectuals who will debate these questions for you at length -- especially if you happen to be female and around half their age.

In the gritty world of power politics, however, one thing is certain: The votes by the French and Dutch to reject the EU constitution sealed a personal triumph for George W. Bush and Tony Blair over Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.

These four statesmen were publicly on the same side when it came to the constitution. Right after his second inauguration, Bush traveled to Brussels to give his seal of approval to the European project. Blair had promised to lead the campaign for the constitution in Britain.

But these public agreements concealed profound disagreements and even greater personal animosity. Blair and Bush championed an Anglo-Saxon version of Europe -- one rooted in free markets and a transatlantic alliance led by the United States. Chirac and Schroeder saw Europe as a counterweight to the U.S.; and they championed a social democratic model to tame Anglo-Saxon capitalism. These disagreements have underpinned virtually all the recent transatlantic battles -- from the Iraq war to arms sales to China.

Schroeder and Chirac are much more natural personal allies than Bush and Blair. They come from the same cynical, pragmatic European ruling elite that favors incremental change and scoffs at Bush's naive dreams of democratizing the Middle East. The Anglo-Saxon duo, by contrast, often embody the transatlantic divide: When they first met, the only thing that Bush could say he had in common with his pro-Kyoto, Clintonite ally was that they used the same toothpaste. But Bush and Blair have found common ground, not least in tangling with Schroeder and Chirac. Given the unpredictability of Iraq, it is too early to claim a knockout for the Anglo-Saxons. But the Axis of Weasel is on the canvas. First, Schroeder was flattened when his party lost control of working-class North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's largest state. Then the French and Dutch voters killed the idea of a European super-state. Schroeder may be replaced as early as September by Angela Merkel (who supported the invasion of Iraq); Chirac could be ousted by the more Anglo-Saxon Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

"He Who Dares, Wins" is a dangerous motto for a politician -- as Bush and Blair may yet find out. But "He Who Never Dares Can Never Win" seems a fit epitaph for Chirac and Schroeder. While both Bush and Blair have been willing to gamble to keep their economies growing (from creating an independent Bank of England to Social Security reform), neither Chirac nor Schroeder used their early popularity to push reforms; now one in eight Germans and one in 10 French is unemployed. The same goes for politics. Blair has annihilated the Tory machine, and Bush may yet be seen as the founder of a period of Republican hegemony. By contrast, Chirac and Schroeder have not only failed to change the political landscapes of their countries, they never even tried.

Meanwhile, the one ideal that Chirac and Schroeder have clung to -- the dream of a united Europe -- suddenly looks naive. Indeed, it appears the wily old pragmatists have been outsmarted by perfidious Albion. It was Blair who pushed hardest for the enlargement of the EU, thus loosening the Franco-German stranglehold on the union and setting up a furious reaction in France; it was Blair who called for referendums on the constitution, shaming Chirac into doing the same thing. And they walked into both these traps.

A British politician, Enoch Powell, once lamented that "all political careers end in failure." But there are different sorts of failure. Bush and Blair will have left their footprints in the sands of time; Chirac and Schroeder have virtually nothing to show for their efforts. And that will hurt a great deal.

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