Merry dance of Europe's centre-right


Opinion/Mark Steyn: Most of us are familiar with the subtle differences between even relatively compatible cultures. Americans, for example, are often taken aback to discover that what they know as The Hokey-Pokey is called in Britain and Ireland The Hokey-Cokey.

Given that it was written by Jimmy Kennedy, it would seem to be the Yanks who mangled the lyric. But it goes to show: just when you think you've figured out what it's all about, it turns out you haven't quite grasped all the nuances.

Still, accustomed as I am to these linguistic variations, I was nevertheless brought up short browsing the Guardian the other day and reading that Angela Merkel's expected election victory would make Germany "the 20th of the 25 EU nations with a centre-right government".

That's right: the EU - you know, the EUnuchs, the Euro-weenies, the proverbial cheese-eating surrender-monkeys, etc - are four-fifths "centre-right".

The Guardian is technically correct. At the moment, Europe is governed largely by politicians of "the right". Jacques Chirac, for example, is in French terms a "conservative". Granted, conservative is an elastic designation and, in the hands of the media, it's usually shorthand for the side you're not meant to like: thus, George W Bush is conservative, and so are unreconstructed Marxists on the Chinese Politburo and the more hardline ayatollahs.

France's Jean-Marie Le Pen is usually described as "extreme right", even though he's an economic protectionist in favour of the minimum wage and lavish subsidies for his country's incompetent industries and inefficient farmers and is a long-time anti-American fiercely opposed to globalisation - all of which gives him far more in common with the average leftie than with, say, me.

The late Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands was also labelled as "extreme right", though he was mostly a gay hedonist, and we on the right are usually seen as sour and joyless and too uptight to be any good at sex, insofar as we ever get any.

But, even under those expansive rules of admission, I find it difficult to encompass President Chirac within the definition of "the right". If he's centre-right, where the centre is doesn't bear thinking about. Still, the fact remains that the transatlantic estrangement of the Bush era has occurred during a period of supposed political convergence between Washington and the chancelleries of Europe - the end result of which is that the president's closest ally is the centre-left survivor Tony Blair.

That's why, even before her dismal campaign performance, I was never persuaded by those Europhiles in Washington who were pinning their hopes on a Euro-American realignment under Frau Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy.

The differences between Europe and America are so profound that political labels are simply lost in translation, and the more inflated billing is simply preposterous - Merkel is "Germany's Thatcher", Sarkozy is "France's Reagan", as a very eminent European historian informed me recently.

You know those showers where the merest nudge of the dial turns the water from freezing to scalding? Mainstream European politics is the opposite of that. You can turn the dial all the way from "left" to "right" and it makes no difference.

Austria was the classic example: year in, year out, whether you voted for the centre-left party or the centre-right party, you wound up with the same centre-left/centre-right coalition presiding over what was in essence a two-party/one-party state.

In France, Mr Chirac isn't really "centre-right", so much as ever so slightly left-of-right-of-left-of-centre - and even that distinction only applies when he's standing next to his former prime minister, the right-of-left-of-right-of-left-of-centre Lionel Jospin. Though supposedly from opposite ends of the political spectrum, in the 2002 presidential election, they wound up running against each other on identical platforms, both passionately committed to high taxes, high unemployment and high crime.

Americans often make the same criticism of their own system - the "Republicrats", etc - but the US still has a more genuinely responsive politics with more ideological diversity than anywhere in western Europe.

On the Continent, the Eurodee and Eurodum mainstream parties are boxed into a consensus politics that's no longer sustainable. The people are weary of certain aspects of this post-war settlement - permanent double-digit unemployment and the Islamification of their cities - but they're not yet ready to give up the social programmes, the short work-weeks, long vacations and jobs for life.

Did you see that story over the weekend? A chap in Marseilles lived with the dead body of his mother for five years in order to continue receiving her pension of €700 a month. The Reuters headline distilled Continental politics perfectly: "Frenchman lived with dead mother to keep pension".

That summation could stand as Europe's epitaph.

Frau Merkel's remorseless retreat from meaningful reform during this German campaign tells you how likely that is. I don't think the politicians are ready to tell the voters and I don't think the voters are ready to hear it. They put their centre-right foot in, they pull their centre-left foot out. But they don't yet understand they're about to be shaken all about.