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Corfu: A Jobs Summit?

5 minute read
Jay Branegan/Brussels

WHEN EUROPE’S LEADERS GATHER this week on the Greek island of Corfu for their semiannual summit, unemployment will again top the formal agenda. But it is fair to surmise that it is their own jobs that are really at stake. Voters in the European Parliament elections of the past two weeks gave many leaders a sound drubbing — while handing a few an unexpected boost — in a crazy-quilt pattern that presages considerable political upheaval in the year to come.

This week’s might be the last European Union summit for Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, whose Socialists suffered their first electoral defeat after 12 years in power as punishment for widespread corruption and a 17.5% unemployment rate, Europe’s highest. Gonzalez “has two alternatives,” chortled El Mundo. “Either resign and hand over the presidency to another member of his party, or call early elections for next fall.” In any case, Gonzalez’s days in power could be numbered.

In France the Euro-polls were supposed to sort things out for next year’s race for a successor Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. On the left, a good showing from the Socialists led by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, 63, would have sealed his claim as the “natural candidate.” But they were humiliated with only 14.5% of the vote, their worst showing in 25 years, throwing the race for the party’s nomination wide open. Possible wild cards include former Culture Minister Jack Lang and former Health Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Conservatives had little time to gloat. The 25.6% vote won by the ruling coalition of neo-Gaullists and center-rightists was a sharp rebuke in contrast to the 39.5% it had scored in last year’s legislative polls. Moreover, the government’s pro-European stance was undermined by an anti-Maastricht movement headed by conservative Deputy Philippe de Villiers. Last week’s wan showing and the fading chances of a leftist victory next year are likely to crack the right’s brittle unity. Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur could be joined in the race for the Elysee by the neo-Gaullist party chief Jacques Chirac, whose prospects had been eclipsed by Balladur’s Teflon popularity, and former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing. To crowd the field further, populist tycoon Bernard Tapie, under multiple criminal investigations, headed a high-scoring left-wing, pro-Europe ticket, which could inspire him to launch . a presidential bid.

If Balladur looks beclouded in Corfu, another conservative, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, will be beaming. The media billionaire turned politician should get a cordial greeting at his first summit, following his successful maiden foreign trip to Bonn last week. His vanity-plate party, Forza Italia, won big with 30.6% of last week’s vote, a giant step up from the 21% of only three months ago in the national elections. A glum editorial in the left-leaning La Repubblica lamented that Italians “chose unanimously to shout that they wanted to be governed by Silvio Berlusconi.” The landslide sparked the bitter resignation of Achille Occhetto, leader of the neocommunist Democratic Party of the Left, who, despite capturing 19% of the vote, was blamed for blowing the party’s seemingly unbeatable lead in March.

Another somewhat surprising victor on the right was German Chancellor Helmut Kohl — shortening the odds that after a tough re-election fight in October, he will be around to play host at the E.U. summit set for the steel town of Essen in December. The 38.8% polled by Kohl’s two-party coalition abruptly stalled the once inevitable rise of charismatic Rudolf Scharping, whose Socialists won only 32.2%. At the other end of the tally, Britain’s conservative John Major lived fully down to expectations, as his Tories plunged to 27% of the popular vote, their worst showing ever. When the final total came in, the Conservatives had lost nearly half their Euro-seats, further weakening Major’s grip on the party leadership

Another vote last week ensures that at least one extra limousine will be needed at future summits: a resounding 66.4% of Austrian voters said yes to E.U. membership. The outcome, which had been in doubt, was a personal victory for Foreign Minister Alois Mock, who campaigned tirelessly for approval despite fragile health. Euro-enthusiastic Finns should give thumbs up Oct. 16. But Sweden’s pro-E.U. forces remain outnumbered, and in Norway, the last to vote, on Nov. 28, opposition is at 52% and rising. Scandinavian Euro-boosters were hurt by last week’s parliamentary results in Denmark, where anti-E.U. parties got a quarter of the vote.

In the coming week, however, the most important vote is the one the summitteers themselves may take to replace Commission President Jacques Delors, who steps down in December after 10 historic years. The race is between Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, supported by France and Germany, and outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, now cast as the British and “small-country” candidate. Both will be in Corfu, and each can, in principle, veto the other. Should make for an interesting meeting.

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