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Appeared in: Volume 5, Number 6
Published on: July 1, 2010
A Crisis of Wishing

Some are smiling at Europe’s comeuppance. But Schadenfreude would be unwarranted, especially coming from Americans.

Geopolitical reality tends to change far more slowly than perceptions of it. To take a geophysical analogy: Underlying trends are like plate tectonics, slow to develop but irresistible over time; perceptions are like the weather, sometimes dramatic, often unpredictable and hardly irrelevant, but of lesser impact all the same. Perceptions of Europe have shifted markedly
in just the past few years. Where once stood an attractive post-nationalist model of peace, prosperity, social justice and ecological virtue now stumbles a larger but seemingly aimless and far more ungainly project. Europe today seems apathetic about its achievements, confused about its future and largely ignored by those not directly affected by it. Thanks to the financial crisis and its meandering aftermath, Europe’s problems and limits seem lately to have accumulated into a genuine crisis. To understand how read Walter Russell Mead brilliant April 27 post on the economic origins of the “Greek” dimension of the crisis.

But is it really a major crisis we hear thundering toward us, or just the cacophony of nervous nellies? Is the promise of the once-vaunted European model now revealed as just a passing breeze, or is it our current dour attitudes that will dissipate once the economy stabilizes? The American Interest put the question to eight observers, four European and four American, for our July/August issue.

—The Editors

Europe used to be, within the living memory of many of us, the cockpit of world power, prosperity and prestige. Today it is raw material for an ouija board. Predictions about Europe’s future range from its impending suicide to its emergence as a unified, leading economic and political superpower. Of late most predictions, especially those coming out of Europe, have been on the dour and pessimistic side, and for good reason.

The Europeans have gotten themselves into a strange fix. They have expanded their Union to the point of decision-making paralysis but would consider expanding still further. They cannot deepen the Union, lest residual memories of democratic accountability roil Europe’s individual national souls. But the Union may have to be deepened, for as the Belgian politician Leo Tindemans noted in a famous report on the future of Europe more than thirty years ago, a house half-finished will not last. As the Greek crisis has shown, economic union without considerably more political union will not work. The European Union has established new central offices, but dares not staff them adequately. Meanwhile, its liberal immigration protocols, having stimulated a widespread anti-immigrant backlash, are now in de facto abeyance; but the demographic collapse of the native populations demands immigration to keep economies from collapsing as well. In nearly every sense, then, the European model, and the European promise with it, is locked in a crisis of wishing: The further the Europeanists try to go forward, the harder it is for them to move anywhere at all.

It was not always this way. The postwar generation of European elites aimed to create more democratic societies. They wanted to reduce the extremes of wealth and poverty and provide essential social services in a way that prewar governments had not. They wanted to do all this not just because they believed it was morally right, but because they saw social equity as a way to temper the anger and frustrations that lead to violence and ultimately to war. They had had quite enough of war. For several decades, many West European countries nearly achieved these aims, and they had every reason to be proud of that fact.

Nonetheless, during the past few decades the European welfare state has been under growing pressure. Services have had to be cut, and anxieties have mounted as expenditures continue to rise and budgets to shrink. The political economy of the welfare state is based on the assumption of substantial economic growth—a Ponzi scheme of sorts, yes, but not an unreasonable one. What if growth dwindles, however, or ceases altogether? These issues are now widely discussed in Europe.

Even if the welfare state in its present form proves unsustainable, however, it is only one dimension of the European model. Economic problems or not, no one seriously worries that EU member-state foreign policies, or even state economic policies, will be radically re-nationalized, or that there will be another war in the heart of Europe. There has been a great deal of talk lately, mainly in the context of the Greek economic crisis, about Germany being less willing to play banker and economic engine for Europe’s less well-performing members that have overspent themselves into penury. But this is just Germany becoming normal, Germany acting logically in a context (a united Germany in a much larger European Union) that is quite different from the one it signed on to in the mid-1950s.

So, anyway, we on this side of the Atlantic should hope for the future of Europe, for Europe’s problems belong to America as well. Its crisis of wishing, if it cannot be resolved, will harm American interests. America is passing through a crisis of its own, not just an economic or financial crisis, but a crisis of both confidence and governance. In such times we need a strong European Union that shares democratic values with the United States.

According to the Euro-optimists and some of the declarations coming out of Brussels lately, Europe understands the situation and is prepared to step up. But more realistic voices argue that Europe will not be a partner of world power with America. Europe may well be inclined not to offset America’s decline but only to help Americans to manage it, as Europeans managed their own decline some decades earlier. This may explain why so many people outside the West believe that Europe will play a more positive role in world affairs than the United States. One suspects that European popularity in this regard rests precisely on the assumption that Europe is powerless to interfere in other nations’ affairs, exert pressure or complain effectively about violations of human rights. A wealthy region that punches below its weight can be attractive for any number of self-interested reasons.

All of this is self-evident; but how do we explain it? Several explanations come to mind. For one thing, Europe’s decline reflects the changing global balance of power. Europe’s prior source of strength, its economy, is no longer so vibrant in absolute terms, nor clearly in terms relative to the “new” Asia and even the lauded BRICs. Europe will recover to a certain extent, but for demographic reasons if for no others it will not recover its former leading position. Europe’s weakness also stems from its energy dependence on Russia and the Middle East, and from social unrest linked to large numbers of unassimilated immigrants. These circumstances will not soon change either, and they will constrain and divide European foreign policies for as long as they endure.

That’s foreign policies, plural. As has already been noted, the elusive promise of genuine unity lurks right at the center of Europe’s crisis of wishing. If Europe were serious about maintaining its status as a global power, its elite would hammer out common foreign, defense and energy policies, and build the institutions to sustain them. But the elites have barely been able to manage a common agricultural policy, for all that’s been worth to Europe as a whole. To build genuine coordination, let alone genuine agreement, in political and security spheres has proved impossible, so the elites have been reduced to pretending. The Lisbon Treaty proclaims that national interests and national sovereignty will be subordinated to the institutions of the European Union, but wishing won’t make it so. It is unthinkable that France (or, indeed, any major European country) will subordinate its own national interest to the interests of the European Union (should it ever agree on what they are). The European governments do not want it, and European voters want it even less.

Europe hasn’t even been very good at pretending lately. If it had been, it would have chosen politicians of international renown to give the new Lisbon Treaty set-up the appearance of importance. Instead, the wizards behind the curtain chose two unknowns who lack both experience and reputation: the British Baroness Lady Cathy Ashton, who began her political career with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1977–83 (embarrassing questions arose during this period about the financial aid given to this group by the Soviet government); and Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian Prime Minister who has left even most Belgians impressionless. Their welcome has not been enthusiastic: One widely cited source called them “garden gnomes.”

Meanwhile, what progress has been made in solving real problems such as Europe’s weaknesses in energy and defense? Very little. And yet it is not Europe’s economic, institutional and military weakness that is really the key to its troubles, and to the problem Europe’s weakness poses for the United States. At its core, the problem is conceptual.

The Euro-elite once thought it saw the shape of the future. It believed it was aligning itself with key global trends and would be in a position to advance those trends and Europe’s fortunes with them. The introduction of a common currency was such an epochal event, the elites believed, because, as the Lisbon conference of 2000 put it, a “quantum shift” would enable Europe “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.” Military strength was outmoded; power would now be measured in globalist economic terms. It was against this background that a new literature and a new ideology appeared: The 21st century was to be the century of Europe. Its values would become the values of the world: exemplary democracy, an unqualified respect for human rights, sustainable economic growth, stability-orientated monetary policy, social justice.

Nice try; bad guess, and the bad guess has now exposed the crisis of wishing. The Euro-elites were hardly ever serious about building a political union that would require far-reaching concessions concerning national sovereignty, because they saw no need for such sacrifices in a world in which power politics no longer played a significant role. Now they find themselves in a world in which power politics still matters, and they are weaker and less prepared to engage in such politics than ever.

The idea that economics would trump politics supposed too, implicitly for the most part, that political morale could flow from affluence and social security alone. It does not seem to have worked out that way. Europe has been affluent and its population socially secure for the most part now for many years, but it has nonetheless been suffering a subacute case of Abulia—a psychological term first used in the 19th century to connote listlessness and apathy.

The sickness seems to have nothing to do with economics and everything to do with beliefs—specifically, belief in the values for which the society stands. Many Europeans cannot figure out for sure what those values are, for the Euro-elites seem to have been struck dumb in this sphere as in no other. The sense of involvement in a great mission, of preaching the virtues of a better world, has vanished. The closest thing to a shared noble cause is now an anodyne, lowest-common-denominator environmentalism; but it is hard to generate much enthusiasm for the commandment to separate green glass from brown. The European model has thus approached that of Latin America, whose countries have a common ancestral culture, generally live in peace with each other, and fail to cause the rest of the world much trouble. Unless it unites and manages to address its real problems, ten or twenty years from now Europe will seem the geopolitical equivalent of an old-age home: mostly harmless, quaint and perhaps even charming, but decidedly out of the flow of power and prestige.

In what direction, then, is Europe moving? Heeding Tindemans’s warning, it could go forward to much closer political union, but there is tremendous political resistance. Why should the domestic affairs of Europe be decided upon in Brussels or Berlin or Paris? And why should Germany and France and Holland bail out the less responsible (or less fortunate) South Europeans? Europe could retreat—abolish the euro or restrict it to some of the bigger and healthier economies, reverting to a free trade zone and giving up the dreams of a common European foreign, defense and energy policy—to something like the Latin American model. This would not be the end of the world or of Europe, but it would be a sad epilogue to a whole historical era. One can well imagine a future historian sitting on a Brussels street bench (or at one of its local Turkish or Moroccan markets) musing about the glory that was Europe, and, like a second Gibbon, deciding to write the history of its decline. Alternately, Europe could try to steer a middle course, muddling though: a little more political union but not too much of it. This seems at present the most likely course of action, and also the least likely to succeed.

Some will smile at Europe’s comeuppance. Oh, how the braggarts have been brought low, the insufferably smug do-gooders put in their place. But Schadenfreude is unwarranted, especially coming from Americans. It is not as if there were no need for a world power that expresses European values and validates the European aspirations and achievements of the past half century. The hopeful assertions of Kishore Mahbubani and others about the loss of Western moral authority and the ascendancy of Eastern leadership seem a little premature, or we should in any event hope so. New Asia might be more efficient than old Europe for the time being, but as for moral values, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s feelings, expressed some 150 years ago, still seem closer to reality: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”

Walter Laqueur is the author most recently of The Last Days of Europe (St. Martin’s Press, 2007) and Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (Brandeis University Press, 2009).
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