ROME—German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently took a step that would have left any previous conservative leader aghast.
The country where women once devoted themselves to the three K's—Kirche, Kueche, and Kinder (church, kitchen, and children)—is losing population because of a low birthrate.
In hopes of encouraging parents to have bigger families, her junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, proposed setting up daycare for children one year or older, a model popular in Scandinavia.
And Merkel agreed, throwing out a basic tenet of her own party's ideology about childrearing at home. The result: a massive construction program to permit universal daycare within six years.
It's the latest example of Europe's new pragmatism, and as of this past week, Merkel—who became chancellor 18 months ago—finds herself in good company. With Gordon Brown succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister in Britain and Nicolas Sarkozy following Jacques Chirac as president of France, a different generation is taking over.
The high-profile visionary leaders are gone and, so it seems, is the era of ideology. Brown and Sarkozy, the new—and largely unknown—faces of 2007, want to avoid confrontation with the United States and to get on with issues that matter, starting with their domestic agendas.
Here in Italy, Romano Prodi, the successor to flamboyant conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi, cuts a lower profile as he tries to assemble a wide-spectrum coalition government that would be more stable than the left-of-center coalition that elected him in 2006.
"It's not only in Rome, but in Paris, in London, in Berlin. We've got too much that needs to be done to fight about ideologies," said Italian Sen. Furio Colombo, a Left Democrat. "The timing is not coincidental. It is a new era."
Disaster in Iraq? Nothing is to be gained from discussing it, the new leaders say.
"There's not a starry eye in the bunch," said Richard Whitman, an expert on European politics for the London-based research center Chatham House. "Economics matter more than politics here. Chirac took pleasure in rubbing the U.S. the wrong way; Sarkozy will eliminate the irritant factor. This group wants to get down to business."
As such, improving relations with the United States will be an immediate priority. Iraq won't be discussed because there's no upside in such discussions.
"Europeans simply no longer will discuss Iraq in polite conversation," said Janis Emmanoulidis, a European expert at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich. "Iraq, for Europe, is history, a lesson learned that will not be forgotten—do not get into a conflict unless you know how to get out—but that is all, in public. Instead, they will focus on Afghanistan, where there are disagreements, but still widespread support."
Past divisions will be avoided in favor of new, practical solutions. Experts expect Merkel, currently president of the European Community, to propose a scaled-down European constitution, one that will lay to rest former dreams of a "United States of Europe" and instead focus on the flow of labor and goods within the continent.
Experts also expect Europe's leaders to avoid talk of controversial enlargement, particularly the inclusion of Turkey. They will seek solutions to global warming, instead of dredging up past disagreements. And they will continue to work on ways of dealing with international terrorism.
"This group will not look to long-term strategy, as much to dealing with issues that need immediate attention, and create common ground," Emmanoulidis said.
Domestic policy, especially economic changes, will be a priority, with foreign policy a distraction.
As for George Bush, perhaps the most unpopular American leader in Europe in modern times, no one is paying him much attention. "That's not irony, that's election cycle," said Jan Friedrich Kallmorgen, an expert on trans-Atlantic relations with the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Bush is no longer standing. He's closer to dead duck than lame duck."
Still, he added, that won't stop trans-Atlantic relations from improving.
"The drags on trans-Atlantic relations are out of office," he said.
Sarkozy took office as France's president on Wednesday and quickly began promoting a mini-constitution for Europe, a clear sign that he accepts that the far-reaching one that his party backed in a losing effort two years ago can't pass in much of Europe, including France.
In England, Brown won't officially succeed Blair until June 27, and he still has to undergo what's expected to be a pro forma vote in Parliament on Wednesday.
Brown's greatest achievement while operating in Blair's shadow as Chancellor of the Exchequer was implementing a plan to give independence to the Bank of England, the British equivalent of the Federal Reserve. He's pledged that his first order of business will be to put together legislation aimed at restoring trust in politicians.
Alfred Pijpers, a European policy expert at the Dutch research center Clingendael Institute, said smaller countries may be able to put aside their fear that Europe's big three (four, if Italy's Prodi can stabilize his power base) won't listen to them.
"Right now it looks as if we'll like where they're leading," he said. "Europe's self-inflicted crisis is over. We're heading into a period of practical politics, looking for solutions to shared issues, from energy policy to terrorism."
In Italy, Sen. Colombo said that the replacement of high-profile leaders by technocrats isn't a necessarily a bad thing.
"Some generations produce Raphael, who creates works we all notice," he said. "Other generations must finish painting the rest of the church. Both are necessary."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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