David Rennie

Paralysis is now Europe’s default setting

Electoral confusion in Italy, political cowardice in France: David Rennie surveys a continent mired in neuralgia, irrationality and paranoia

Luxembourg

A sleeping sickness is sweeping the chancelleries of Europe. This Monday, in the space of a single day, Italy and France became the latest nations to succumb to the symptoms of this nasty disease — headaches, confusion, and finally a descent into paralysed slumber.

As this article goes to press, the Italian election results are still being disputed by all sides. But one thing is already clear. Tony Blair will never again enjoy the strong backing of his ally, holiday host and fellow tanning enthusiast, Silvio Berlusconi.

The Italian billionaire — a staunch, if improbable, ally for Mr Blair in Europe and Iraq — has either lost his job, or kept it by a margin so tiny that he has lost his mandate to rule with any hint of boldness. Romano Prodi is so confident that on Tuesday he claimed victory: ‘We can govern for five years,’ he said. ‘The law allows it though we will have to work hard.’ Put bluntly, Italy is back in its old role as the bad joke of European politics: a large, wealthy, founding nation of the EU that always, somehow, ‘punches below its weight’, as Foreign Office mandarins like to murmur.

In France, meanwhile, President Jacques Chirac’s decision to give in to street protesters and scrap a flagship youth employment law was tantamount to abdication — a signal that nothing more can be expected from his exhausted administration. France will effectively be leaderless between now and the presidential elections in May next year.

It is a prospect that straightforwardly appals the ruling EU establishment, who face yet more uncertainty and drift for a Europe already frozen with fear in the face of globalisation and the threat from China, India and other rising economic powers. By chance, Monday saw EU foreign ministers summoned to a formal meeting in Luxembourg.

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