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A Europe of weak leaders looks set to add one more

Published Sep. 15, 2005

Saying goodbye in Madrid this week, a new friend, a Spanish diplomat, said to me: "Maybe we'll see you again in a month or so."

What he meant was that I might be back for new elections in Spain if Popular Party leader Jose Maria Aznar fails to win approval in the Spanish parliament to become the new prime minister.

Aznar, whose party emerged from Sunday's elections with the largest number of seats in the 350-member Congress of Deputies, has been trying to round up the crucial votes he needs for an absolute majority.

Without those votes, or at least abstentions by most of his political enemies, Spain faces political instability at a time when several other European countries are also in the feeble grasp of weak or caretaker governments unable to do much more than try to mind the store.

None of them are likely to be in any condition to make major decisions next month when their leaders meet in Turin, Italy, to begin deciding where the 15-member European Union goes from here.

Italy itself has been living in a state of political uncertainty for nearly a year with its political forces almost equally divided between left and right.

With the latest failure to agree on a new coalition Cabinet and how to reform the political system, Italians will go to the polls on April 21 for their third round of parliamentary elections in four years. With the political forces so divided, there is no guarantee they will decide much.

British Prime Minister John Major is going along day by day wondering if the next one or two defections from his Conservative Party will end his majority in the House of Commons.

He is trying to stay in office until May 1997, when he has to call elections, but even if he does stay he won't have any room for compromise at the inter-governmental conference in Turin where Britain is likely to remain the odd man out.

In Greece, a new prime minister is still being broken in. And the enmity with Turkey continues to bedevil the EU.

At the same time, the union is haunted by widespread unemployment that is sapping both its self-confidence and support for the goal of a single currency by the end of the century. In Germany, the EU's economic motor, the jobless rate skidded to just over 11 percent in February.

The goal of a single European currency remains, along with the doubts that almost all of the 15 EU members will find it hard, if not impossible, to meet the strict limits on debt, deficits and inflation necessary to join.

What the Turin conference is supposed to initiate are constitutional reforms to give the EU the common foreign and security policy it still lacks despite all the lip service.

This was never more apparent than in the failure to nip the war in the former Yugoslavia in the bud four years ago or deal with it since. The United States, periodically tempted to retreat into isolationism by one demagogue or another, finally had to step in reluctantly to help stop the war _ at least for a little while.

The future remains in doubt, not only because of a limited American attention span but precisely because Europe still lacks the unity to deal with such crises and maybe always will.

Meanwhile, back in Spain, Aznar has had to admit that his only chance to avoid new elections probably lies in a pact with the Catalan nationalist party he has spent the last couple of years caustically criticizing.

What he criticized it for was using its votes in parliament to keep Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez in power. Now, it is Aznar who needs those votes to get into office.

Without the 16 Catalan votes, plus five from the Basque nationalists and/or four from the Canary Island nationalists, he won't have the 176 necessary to confirm him as prime minister.

On a subsequent second ballot in parliament, both the Catalan nationalists and Gonzalez's Socialists would have to abstain for him to get the necessary majority of all votes cast.

Gonzalez might be smart to let Aznar pass and live on painfully for a while from vote to vote on whatever issues come before parliament. But how strong a government would Spain then have on a continent of mostly weak ones?