EUROPEANS have been voting consistently this year for stability and the status quo. In the British and Italian elections this month, as in the West German elections last January, the results were strikingly similar to those four years earlier. In all three countries the conservatives remain dominant. None of the conservative parties managed to win an absolute majority, but, because of the voting system in Britain and a coalition partnership in Germany, they will continue to run the governments there. The Italian conservatives seem to have lost the initiative to the Socialists, intermittently their allies, but they will at least continue to hold the largest bloc of seats in parliament. As for France, it put its conservatives back in power in last year's parliamentary election.
All that seems to reflect a mood of remarkable contentment -- remarkable particularly when you consider the economy. The growth rate has been slowing down, and unemployment, which has been hanging around 11 percent in Western Europe for the past four years, is not dropping. If anything a slow increase lies ahead, according to the the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By conventional reckoning, that ought to push politics toward impatience and change.
Fast economic growth is supposed to be popular in all times and all places. But recent European experience is a warning to think carefully about that easy assumption. Fast growth over the past generation has changed continental European society profoundly, in ways that were not always comfortable. The richest European countries do not seem at all distressed to have drifted into a time of low growth rates. They are using their wealth to support people who aren't working, and unemployment there is now more likely to mean boredom than desperation.
Attitudes are different in the poorer European countries. So are growth rates. The OECD says that Britain's economy will probably grow better than 3 percent this year, the fastest of any of the major European countries. But in Germany, France, Benelux and Sweden, growth seems to be running about half that rate. It's poor performance by past standards, but it doesn't seem to have damaged any of the politicians' reputations. Germany's chancellor, Helmut Kohl, has made a positive virtue of resisting all advice to speed up the German economy. He wants to keep things pretty much on their present track. Most of Europe seems to agree with him.