European Affairs

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Ideological Convergence: A New Way

In the seven years since George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton as President, ideological divergence between the United States and the European Union has come to be considered the natural state of Transatlantic affairs. In the U.S., religiosity has been channeled into electoral politics while in Europe secularist ideals have been reinforced by the challenge of Islamicist extremism. Europeans are massively opposed to the death penalty while Americans seem to support it. Psychologically, Europe tends to be on the left – in contrast to a U.S. that seems to be on the right. European voters frequently vote left-of-center governments into office and even European countries with conservative governments are in practice to the left of the U.S. because of their higher degree of concern about issues of social protection.

This picture will probably be altered by leaders of a new generation in Europe who will influence a period of important transformations. For a decade, the U.S. and the EU have talked about achieving “regulatory convergence.” That effort has had only limited results in bridging differences in national approaches.

But now, suddenly, it seems we may be on the cusp of something much bigger. Could it be that we are heading into a period of ideological convergence?

Already, Europe seems to be in a phase where doctrinal labels matter less. Nicolas Sarkozy has a credo and practice that defies classification into any classical political doctrine. His view is that France needs an economic and political overhaul to restore institutional credibility and “be back in Europe.” Gordon Brown is an adept of “the third way” invented by the British left, but he has made it clear that he intends to concentrate more on results than on political and rhetorical glamour. And Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat by instinct and affiliation, found herself obliged to govern through a coalition with the Social Democrats. In the U.S., the upcoming electoral campaign is likely to demonstrate that many Americans strongly share some of these European concerns. Many candidates recognize demands in the electorate for better health coverage and other changes to reduce an array of often-shocking inequalities.

The new European leaders have become adept at dealing elegantly with contradictions. Punning on the old fascination with unidentified flying objects, France’s Le Monde said recently that “Sarko-ism” can be defined as “an unidentified doctrine.” In the newspaper’s view, Sarkozy’s views are not aligned with the socialist credo (which its editors would support) or with traditional French conservatism (which they would criticize). Economically, he seems ready to mix Keynesian recipes and “Reaganomics” in a pragmatic approach that adapts intellectual ideologies to the complexity of the realities he confronts. Politically, he has managed to win over the voters of the far right: Jean-Marie LePen’s party of the National Front, which came second in the freak outcome of France’s 2002 presidential election, was reduced to a fringe party, with only one seat in parliament. On the left, Sarkozy has succeeded in convincing an impressive group of key leaders to cross the aisle and work with his government – to the dismay of the opposition French Socialist party.

In Britain, Anthony Giddens, the “utopian-realist” sociology professor who helped Tony Blair free the Labour party from its obsolete socialist ideology, has updated his 1998 best-seller on “the third way” in a new book, Over to You, Mr. Brown – How Labour Can Win Again. Giddens has key recommendations for the new prime minister to win the next general election: focus on the economy; seize the center (as no one can win elections any more with only one wing of the electorate); invest in public services, primarily health and education; don’t leave emotive issues such as crime and immigration to the right; conduct active diplomacy recognizing that “nothing is foreign in the era of globalization.”

Sarkozy’s platform includes goals that require similar feats of balancing nominal opposites: achieving security while respecting basic freedoms and the rule of law; practicing “economic patriotism” to safeguard French jobs while encouraging deregulation and more free-market practices; cutting taxes to staunch the departure of the wealthy and the most ambitious young people while balancing the budget and maintaining government investments in key sectors for modernizing the economy; reforming and liberalizing labor laws while maintaining a reasonable degree of social protection, health coverage and free education.

In Germany, Merkel’s government has set its sights on getting a zero-deficit budget while maintaining adequate social protection.

These three leaders appear to share a vision of by-passing old ideological shibboleths and focusing on pragmatic results. The long-running quarrel in Europe about capitalism is truly over because Europeans have recognized that there is no alternative to it. Now they are concentrating on giving it a more human face. So the issue becomes: how to balance market-based approaches with social policy – since European countries want both. This new trend (moderating capitalism without destroying it) can be seen in Sweden, once the country that served as a model of social protection. Now voters there have elected a conservative government and the trade unions, which until recently had membership rates close to 80 percent, are witnessing the defection of large segments of the working population.

Immigration is a policy area that has shown the limits of traditional dogmas in which conservatives stressed security while leftist parties emphasized social and humanitarian considerations. The new approach calls for a new balance that effectively combines elements of both approaches. When French Socialists were asked why they had agreed to bring their support to a French government led by conservatives, their response was: “Action … Action is better than opposition.” It is a phrase with overtones of General de Gaulle’s combination of radical action and reassuring explanations. For this new generation of leaders, action – and results measured with reality checks – seem to replace ideological camouflage. Viewed in this light, action seems to imply candor. It can limit leaders’ scope for alibis and hypocrisy, demagogy and deceit in dealing with the electorate.

Many elements in this new approach existed in the Gaullist style of leadership in putting France back on its feet. Nowadays, the context is different – and much more “European.” There is no way for the EU today to become “Gaullist” (although some people seem to fear this possibility). But the energy of the new generation of leaders who speak the truth will transform Europe – and, inevitably, its relationship with the U.S. Old policies, which often amounted to “do as I say; not as I do,” are in the trash bin. Sarkozy has pledged that he will banish “communiqués which mean nothing.” This is good news for all of us – in France, in Europe and in the U.S.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.

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