My wife was raised a Unitarian, where they baptized people with a handshake and a peace sign. She had her moment of youthful rebellion, which I think was when she married me. She is perhaps as a consequence now a devout Eastern Orthodox mother and can fast in several languages. A couple of weeks ago, she dressed up my three daughters like pilgrims, handed them small suitcases, marched them into my little office and demanded to go to Rome to see the pope.
#ad#I explained that we weren’t actually Catholic, having been turned away by an irritable bishop. Despite a lively detour through the precincts of the Ruthenian branch of Rome’s far-flung empire, we do our religious business with the patriarchal franchise in Constantinople.
“That’s not the point,” she said. “The pope is a holy man, and a great historical figure. Plus, he’s getting frail. I think the girls should see him before…well, before they can’t.” I may not be a Catholic believer, but I’m an admirer and easy to convince. So we jumped in our trusty Peugeot, filled it up with French diesel, and headed for the sunny side of the Alps.
The minute you cross the border and see that big sign in your mind that reads, “Welcome to Italy! Have Fun! Drive Fast!” the dour, secular, sanctimonious dust of France falls from your eyes–and just in time, since every driver in Italy saw the same sign you did. The car floods with Italian pop music. The dolcetto flows, uh, like wine. People in sunglasses shout “ciao!” and wave from the backs of Vespas, just like in the movies. In fact, everybody in Italy looks like a movie star–suddenly even I look like a movie star. Unfortunately, it’s Orson Welles. But the point is, you can feel your mood lift. We got to Rome, parked the car, and jumped in a cab, seeking some decompression. The driver asked where we’d come from. I said, “France,” in the manner of a conehead.
“Francia! How do you like France?” he asked, leaning on his horn at the stationary cars in front of him.
“The French,” I said, affecting a slight Parisian shrug, “they’re just so serious.”
“That is true,” he said, gesturing madly at the cars next to him. “But Rome…ah! Rome is a joke!”
Traffic in Paris is worse, but to the French, it’s never a laughing matter. On balance, Italy is the most civilized country in Europe. How can you tell? Because Italians know a joke when they see one.
Which explains why, according to the Corriere della Sera, Silvio Berlusconi, the most entertaining European politician since mad king Ludwig, took one look at the summit meeting convened in Berlin last Wednesday between Larry, Moe and Tony Blair and called it, “a big mess.” That wasn’t just his opinion; it was a view he said that was shared by every nation in Europe “except the three countries concerned.” According to Le Monde, Aznar agreed; Spain’s foreign minister said the triumvirate had tried to “kidnap the general interest of Europe.”
Chirac and Schroeder, whose survival depends on collecting ransom payments from smaller EU states, denied everything. Blair, who is starting to photograph like a guilty guy caught in a motel room, claimed that it was all an above-board effort to “get some impulsion into the whole process of economic reform,” as Blair put it to the BBC. His ever-so-impelling headline from the meeting: A decision to push for the creation of a top-level bureaucrat who would be charged with eliminating some of the EU’s bureaucracy in order to make the EU the “most competitive economy in the world” by 2010. As Timothy Garton-Ash gently mused in the Guardian, “If you believe that can be achieved, you’ll believe anything”–including Garton-Ash’s own fantasy of how the EU would work if he ruled the world.
There’s something eternally, enthusiastically, buoyantly speculative about the whole EU adventure. Brussels is the Skywalker Ranch of European politics, full of money and equipment, but empty of vision and imagination for more than a decade now. The grand plan at the moment is to make a bureaucratic Jabba the Hutt which will sit atop the continent issuing protocols until everyone in Europe is on the same e-mail routing telling you when to brush and when to turn out the lights. To those in government, the answer to rampant governmental mediocrity is always to promise reform by growing more government. Did it never occur to anyone in Europe that a smaller EU might do better than a large one?
The answer is “yes,” and that’s why Blair had to crash the Franco-German rave in Berlin. Soon, the EU will add ten new members. Blair can see as well the rest of us that the ability to use the EU for parochial political ends will be limited, unless a smaller-core group of powerful states leads the way in making policies that support the EU-as-superstate model. By backing most of the recent Franco-German maneuvers, including giving credibility to the French-German plans for making some sort of Euro-army, Blair, like Chirac and Schroeder, is banking on using a more powerful Union as a way of increasing his own political clout.
But it’s a miscalculation. Blair’s smarter move would have been to let the French and German leaders continue their tacky affair until they become victims of regime change at the hands of fed-up voters. Schroeder’s Germany is in recession; even his feeble attempts at the kinds of reform necessary to lift the country out of the doldrums forced his resignation as party leader. Chirac, meanwhile, is seeing his political cronies, like former PM Alain Juppé, face conviction for corruption–a fate that would have been his if he hadn’t passed a law giving himself immunity. Yet, the Observer reports, the scandal threatens Chirac nonetheless, perhaps explaining his theatrical demonstrations of anti-Americanism. At the same time, says the EU Observer, France is losing jobs the way they used to lose wars–fast, but with regret. Blair is in better shape, politically, than either of his new friends, but it won’t take them long to drag him down to their level. Fortunately for Blair, he faces no credible political threat at home. According to the Daily Telegraph, the best Tory leader Michael Howard can do is wander through racially torn neighborhoods swearing that under his rule, wacky immigrants from eastern Europe won’t be allowed to come into Britain and break shop windows. You know how crazy those Hungarians can get.
In fact, the next batch of EU members will not be very interested in following the transparently self-serving plans hatched by France and Germany. They will want a less-restrictive view of the EU and will seek to align themselves with a leader who speaks plainly and means what he says–somebody more Berlusconi than Blair. It’s perhaps a good sign for Berlusconi that the Euro elites just can’t make themselves take him any more seriously than he takes them.
Anyway, the reaction in the Europress to this whole little N-gauge Yalta was depressingly predictable, since most newspapers mistakenly thought the news was that Blair had victoriously insinuated himself between the Franco-German sheets. The Daily Telegraph pronounced Blair’s misstep “a triumph.” To the Times (subscription only), Blair had won a “breakthrough” by getting Chirac and Shroeder to go along with the bureaucracy reform plan. The French and German press agreed that Blair had pulled off a diplomatic coup. According to Der Spiegel, the EU leadership was now in the hands of the “Big Three”; the IHT agreed. It took the paper’s John Vinocur to make it clear that while Chirac and Schroeder can make each other look good, when you add young Blair to the pile, they both look pretty creepy. Libération’s headline was very exciting, except when you stopped to think about it: “Ménage à trois au sommet de l’Europe.”
Ménage à trios it may have been. But that’s not the same as going steady. According to the Guardian, the président of the French Republic used his favorite tactic–insulting his rivals face-to-face in a press conference–to pointedly remind Blair that he was only in bed for the night and that he shouldn’t expect to be a part of the “very intense relationship” Jacques said he shared with Gerhard. The whole European kissing ritual is mystifying to most of us, but I think what Chirac seemed to be saying was that when it comes to kissing French-style, Blair gets the cheek, but Gerhard gets the tongue. Blair, eager to mollify Chirac, said he agreed completely. “There should not be any sensitivity about this, any sense of exclusivity,” he said, giving Schroeder a wink and leaving it to foreign minister Jack Straw to tell the BBC, Chirac, and anybody else who would listen an that Blair wasn’t trying to “muscle in” on the Jacques-Gerhard special relationship. Nevertheless, the trio plan on getting together again soon. Given Chirac’s tendency toward PDAs (public displays of animosity), here’s hoping that next time, they get a room.
Some of Prodi’s best friends are not anti-Semitic, really. According to a report in the IHT, the EU is conducting a “seminar” in anti-Semitism, with a workshop in denial led by Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission. Prodi told the group, “I do not believe that any organized form of anti-Semitism comparable to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s is rampant in Europe today”–and he’ll no doubt prove it, just as soon as he figures out how some of the $400 million sent each year by the EU to the Palestinian Authority is ending up in Arafat’s wife’s French bank account, and, according to the Israelis, in the hands of terrorists. The Guardian has that story. Meanwhile, Le Monde has the tale of interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy, the man who would be Jacques, making an appeal for “calm” in dealing with French anti-Semitism.
No spin. The IHT carries a brilliant account of the not-so-long downhill ride of Marco Pantani, the Babe Ruth of Italy’s bicycling set, by IHT’s long-serving (and no doubt long-suffering) son of Baltimore, Samuel Abt. A good read, even for people like me who prefer their wheels in sets of four.
Euro-Blog Tour. Around the blogomonde in a cluster of clicks:
‐EURSOC has picked up an item from Sprout, a Belgian satirical mag, by an MEP alleging the EU is waging an insidious little war on the US, using the Palestinians as pawns.
‐Merde in France–not for a specific item, but for the whole anger-as-catharsis experience. I visit this one every day. Keeps me from kicking dogs, especially the ones in French restaurants. Besides, “W” has more style than Suzy Menkes. Today’s link is to a Nidra Poller interview with Alain Hertoghe, the La Croix editor who was fired for writing a book about how badly the French press covered the war in Iraq and profiled here a while ago.
‐Europundits has a Nelson Ascher piece that explains why the EU is so profoundly anti-Israeli: “It is Europe’s history that legitimates Israel,” writes Ascher, “but Israel’s existence de-legitimates Europe’s history and, consequently, Europe’s role as universal granter of legitimacy. If Europe’s history has to be whitewashed so that the continent may assume its new role of pure vestal, of the only universal judge that may decide on anybody else’s guilt or innocence, Israel has to be delegitimized, because it is the living proof of European mega-criminality.
‐Iberian Notes has picked up one of the most thoughtfully amusing reflections I’ve ever read (okay–the only reflection I’ve ever read) on the word “gringo.” Ay? Caramba.
‐A Fistful of Euros has a new item by Edward Hugh on “The Last Correspondent”–based on a pick-up from Fons Tuinstra, who writes, “The system of foreign correspondence has never been perfect, to put it mildly. But both quality and volume of information about the rest of the world has never been in such a poor state as now…”
‐I Love America, an unabashed Italian blogsite, currently features an item by Paolo that looks at how the differences in birthrates in the U.S. and Europe have created a divergent worldview.
Euro-blogs like these are terrific. Every one of them makes you want to stay and have a beer. So we’ll take this tour again every now and then.
–Denis Boyles writes the weekly EuroPress Review column for NRO.