PARIS – In the Western part of Europe – the part that former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld maliciously labeled “Old Europe” – almost every government is in deep political trouble. The United Kingdom’s new coalition government may be the exception – for now. In the European Union’s big member states, the popularity ratings of leaders – Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Angela Merkel in Germany, and José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero in Spain – hover around 25% or worse.
Whether it is conservatives like Sarkozy, Christian Democrats like Merkel, right-wing populists like Berlusconi, or socialists like Zapatero, political affiliation appears to make no difference. If you hold office in Europe nowadays, you are in trouble.
What has gone so wrong? The economic crisis seems to be the most obvious explanation, but perhaps too obvious.
Two years ago, when shockwaves from the collapse of the US housing bubble crashed onto European shores, these political leaders reacted with apparent vigor, making themselves rather popular for a while. Paradoxically, the early stages of the financial crisis appeared to favor conservative and pro-market leaders – who seemed to be in a better position to save the economy – more than socialists.