It will be a dramatic political spring in Western Europe. What will happen during April and May will set the pattern for a long time to come.
First, there is the general election in the United Kingdom on May5th.
Tony Blair and his Labour party has been widely tipped to win a record consequetive new term in office. But recently the Conservatives under Micael Howard has been doing markedly better, and opinion polls are suddenly starting to predict a much closer race.
Still, Labour should win. With the first-past-the post system and the way support for the different parties is distributed, there is at the moment an obvious bias in the system in favour of Labour. But the unthinkable – a defeat of Tony Blair – is no longer entirely unthinkable.
The Conservatives are certainly advocating sound economic policies as well as necessary reforms of the public sector, but their European policies are bordering on being neanderthal in inspiration, and their playing on anti-immigrant feelings are on the verge of being xenophobic.
Then, there is the election on May 22nd in the German state of Nordrhein-Westphalen. It happens to be the largest of the German Länder, is the only one still ruled by a Red-Green coalition after the debacle in Schleswig-Holstein and has been politically in the hands of the Social Democrats of SPD more or less for ever.
Trends for the SPD are not good, and it is perfectly possible that a defest for them there will leave the Red-Green coalition in Berlin even more vulnerable facing the general election in September of next year.
After that comes, of course, the referendum in France on the Constitutional Treaty of the European Union on May 29th. And three days later, on June 1st, the corresponding referendum in the Netherlands.
If in the past French support for the uropean Union was automatic, the last few years have seen the situation change. While in the past the EU was seen as a vehicle to project French influence over Europe, increasingly the public now seems to be seeing it as a vehicle to impose foreign influence on France.
In a Europe that has moved well past the original six members of the then European Economic Community, France no longer has the automatic commanding role it used to have in the past, and adjustment to this new fact of life in Europe has come rather slowly.
Much of the opposition in France seems to be focused on issues that have very little to do with the substance of the Constitutional Treaty, notable the imminent opening of accession negotiatgions with Turkey. But this reflexts the Angst – to use a German expression – that large segments of French opinion seems to have over Europe at the moment.
Many of them want a French Europe – but not necessarily a European France.
We’ll see. The real campaign is yet to come, and it might well turn out that France will overcome its hesitations and vote for the Constitutional Treaty. If they do, it seems likely that the Dutch will as well. If they don’t, the Dutch referendum might even be cancelled, and in any event is likely to have a negative result.
A Conservative victory in the UK and a No in France will fundamentally change the political situation in the West of Europe. But even just a No in France will have profound effects. One likely such will be that the process of enlargement – notable the opening of talks with Turkey – will come to a halt.
It will take time to pick up the pieces, and it’s not immediately obvious from where the leadership that will have the responsibility to do it will come.