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EUROPE: A Letter to a Vice President

7 minute read

Jimmy Carter’s announcement that he would send Vice President Walter Mondale on a fact-finding trip to Western Europe was almost as welcome in the Continent’s capitals as, well, a visit by the President himself. From Paris, TIME’s chief European correspondent addressed this open letter to the visitor from Washington on what he can expect to see and hear:

Dear Mr. Vice President:

For your first official trip to Western Europe, I suggest you eschew Air Force Two and try a magic carpet for size, since many magical things are expected of you and the Carter Administration.

You will find the natives friendly, particularly the official ones. They are looking forward to meeting you with anticipation unmatched since the days of John Kennedy. The cheering crowds may be few, but do not let that put you off: Western Europeans have given up cheering any politicians, most particularly their own. No offense is intended: they are just preoccupied with other matters, as you will quickly find out.

In virtually every capital you will hear a litany of the European Community’s grim economic prospects for 1977; inflation that continues at an average 9.5%, industrial production that will drop roughly 3% below last year’s output, a trade deficit of $6 billion (it would be a staggering $25 billion if West Germany were excluded) and unemployment figures that will increase all over Western Europe. These depressing statistics tell only part of the real story, which is that a few European states —notably West Germany and the Low Countries—are doing quite well, while others—notably Britain and Italy—are “broke and half-broke,” as they like to put it here. The leaders of the latter countries will stretch their hands in your direction, anticipating something firmer than a friendly shake.

Your Administration is expected to be the engine that will drive Europe out of a renewed recession; Europeans will have a lot of ideas on how you should do it. They feel that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that are in a position to reflate their economies. While pleased with Carter’s $30 billion package, they would like to see more in the next two years. Please be patient with their advice.

Unknown Quantity. The Europeans are aware of your mandate in the new Administration, and they will be measuring you closely. There is still a great deal of nervousness about your boss, who is an unknown quantity to most of the leaders. They will want reassurance that high-level briefings on security arrangements with the Soviet Union, mainly on SALT talks, will continue as they did under Kissinger. They will want to talk about the Middle East and southern Africa. A few want to bring up Yugoslavia, to get your personal reading on what Carter would really do if the Russians intervened there.

They will also want to talk to you about maintaining the level of American troops on West German soil, on better coordination of conventional weaponry as a deterrent, on the problems of declining defense budgets and increased Soviet military pressure, not only in Central Europe but in the far north and the Mediterranean as well. In sum, they will be looking for your reassurance that the U.S. is determined to maintain its status as the Western world’s defender.

Your talks will be held in an atmosphere that is, in the words of one European analyst, “astonishingly, unprecedentedly uncontroversial.” You will find no testy foreign ministers bemoaning the loss of a “European identity,” no leaders of government claiming they want more room for unilateral action, no shrill complaints about American “domination.”

The acerbic rhetoric of 1973-74 seems to be gone for good. Unfortunately, it has been replaced by an atmosphere of almost total policy paralysis here while the leaders have been waiting for you and Jimmy. One participant in December’s summit of the European Community at The Hague argues that the meeting was a terrible flop and he had “never seen a greater dependence on American ideas and initiatives.”

That dependence has come at a high cost. Do not expect much discussion about solving issues through the mechanisms of the European Community. The Community of Europe was pushed aside during the oil crisis of 1973, and it has never regained momentum. One ranking official in the Council of Europe describes his organization as a “walking cadaver.” Another says that “the governments of the Nine are now expending all of their energies simply to stay in power. They are consumed by national prerogatives and problems.”

Do not expect too much from Europe’s floundering individual governments, many of which are weak coalitions that have to avoid big decisions and controversial issues simply to stay in power. They are also involved in attempting to divine the political will of an elusive—many say sullen—electorate. They particularly cannot figure out the youth (who can?) and why giving the vote to 18-year-olds has had no political impact. One theory advanced by a younger member of the European Commission (he is slightly over 30) is that the youth in Europe do not participate because there are no people around these days with big ideas to capture their imaginations. Governments just do not seem to touch their lives in a meaningful way. That attitude is found not only among the young. Regionalism and separatism have suddenly become issues here again. The movements vary in intensity and seriousness, but they have at least focused the attention of central governments on the problems.

Battered Side. There are other voices as well. In France, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is in serious political trouble, battered on one side by a rebellious Gaullist movement within his own parliamentary majority and on the other by a Socialist-Communist coalition that is consistently gaining in popularity and would win a majority in Parliament, according to the polls, if elections were held today.

In Italy, the Christian Democratic government of Premier Giulio Andreotti has held its own against the Communists’ challenge, but it is just barely hanging on. Even Andreotti admits that a government depending on abstentions rather than votes in Parliament can hardly solve his country’s problems.

There is, of course, some encouraging news—the economic good health of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s West Germany, for example. The European electorate as a whole has rejected extremism, of the left and of the right. Voters seem to be moving toward the center, dragging political parties with them.

One reason seems to be the absence of ideology in Europe today. The result is that parties are following people, rather than trying to lead them, even the big “Euro-Communist” parties of France and Italy, which seem to be going through an identity crisis. The leaderships try to outdo one another in pledging allegiance to democratic institutions, while many rank-and-file members are casting around for other solutions.

General Strategy. Some form new splinter groups, others in their disillusion are drifting toward the Socialists, still others try to reverse the “democratic” trend within the party apparat. The Communists are still a great potential danger in Western Europe, particularly since the bourgeois parties have no general strategy on how to cope with them. Their role in Western Europe depends on the viability of the Western alliance, led by the Carter Administration. European leaders are confident that if “we” —the alliance—can lick our economic problems and the social tensions that come with them, then the Communist problem will solve itself.

Granted, that is a big if, but that is why your visit is so eagerly awaited. Not many people here care to contemplate what would become of Europe if we did not solve the problems together. The crowded political center would probably not hold, people would turn in other directions for solutions and perhaps to other people with the wrong kind of big ideas. The important thing is that the crucial process of transatlantic consultation has started again. Your visit will lift the spirits enormously, and that is important in itself.

Very truly yours, William Rademaekers

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