“The European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life.” – Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk, 1 July 2011
For those of us involved in European affairs, it has been more than a little refreshing to hear Donald Tusk, whose country now hold the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, going against the overwhelming ambient pessimism of the continent and especially of its media and elites.
Of course, Tusk’s words might be deemed hyperbole (I hear Canada and Australia are nice) and, for some of us, downright offensive. How many us could go to the youth of Spain who face 40% unemployment or of Greece as their country’s economy collapses – and tell them they’ve got it the best in the world?
On the other hand, like inveterate EU blogger J. Clive-Matthews I really do think there is a lot of truth to what Tusk is saying. Let me even go out on a limb: Even in a recession and with some countries in deep trouble, Europe on the whole really is the best-off place in the world.
“Nay!”, I hear you say, “It can’t be!” Surely we Europeans are lazy, infertile and soft. In a word, we are decadent.
In recent years there has never been a lack of prophets, both foreign and domestic, predicting the doom of decadent Europe: Infertile “native” Europeans will be displaced by Muslim immigrants and their descendents, virile Americans and their soldiery are the only things keeping ungrateful Europeans safe or, most common nowadays, the Chinese will economically devour us.
Of course, each of these allegations has their truthiness. They can resonate with our lived day-to-day reality of poor race relations and today’s bad economic times to broader angst at living in postmodern civilization.
However, having consulted the facts, not just the feeling in our guts, let me go on the record: I don’t believe one bit of it. The citizens of the European Union, as a whole, have some of the healthiest, wealthiest, most peaceful and productive lives of the whole of humanity.
In this, we are up there with the rest of what we used to call the “First World”, along with North America and Japan, later joined by a few small East Asian countries (notably Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan). I would go on to say, however, that not only are the Europeans among this enviable class of nations, but we are, in fact, decidedly less “decadent” than some of our peers. Let me say why.
First, on the population issue, Europe is not isolated in having fewer children. The United Nations has been following this for years and notes that between 1965 and 2002 the world average fertility rate per couple collapsed from 5 to 2.7.
European nations tend have few children – the EU average is 1.6 per couple – but this is not unusual for developed countries nor the lowest in the world. No, the bottom six on that mark are all highly-developed East Asian countries with fertility rates ranging from a high of 1.23 for South Korea down to an amazingly low 0.92 (less than 1 per woman) for Macau, with Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong King between those two.
In the 70s and 80s, hysterical fear of the Japanese “economic threat” was par for the course in the West. No one seems to remember those days anymore as Japan and the “Asian Tigers” – armed with Lee Kuan Yew’s infamous “Asian values” – have overtaken the West in the transition to becoming wealthy and peaceful fortified retirement homes.
Yet, inexplicably, the West is repeating the same mistake with China. Yes, it is the most populous nation in the world, yes its economy is growing at an astonishing rate and, yes, the country is undoubtedly destined to be one of the leading economic powers of the 21st Century.
But I suspect we make too much of this. The Chinese fertility rate is already lower than Europe’s at 1.54 and the UN predicts its population will begin shrinking between 2025 and 2030. Then, though still substantially poorer than Europe, the country will have to struggle with our same intractable problems of maintaining an ever-growing number of pensioners with a shrinking base of productive working-age people.
What of the supposed hordes of Muslims that will be displacing us and turning our fair continent in “Eurabia”? International demographers and statisticians tell us the sharpest drop in fertility in the entire world between 1980 and 2010 was in… the Middle East. The leaders in this trend are the Iranians, no less, whom the CIA already report have less than 2 children per couple.
Europe’s alleged economic decadence is an equally common trope: laissez faire capitalism is always better, State intervention always inefficient, and the welfare state is certainly making Europeans spoilt and lazy.
Here American ultra-capitalist ideology plays a heavy role and one can cite the usual wiseman-dunces like Fareed Zakaria (who on this basis declared “the decline and fall of Europe” in 2006). The Economist continues to be a big fan of this trope, generally singling out France, but still being a rather reality-tethered publication it occasionally recognizes success when it is there.
The truth is the gap in productivity growth between the USA and Europe collapsed in the early 2000s. Since then, Europe has done substantially better through the economic crisis. Unemployment in Europe and America has been almost identical, on average peaking around 10%, then going down to a current EU average of 9.3% while in the US it is at 9.2% (and actually rising). Note that the unemployed European typically has a rather more secure social safety net than his American counterpart.
The real difference is the budgetary situation. The regional disparities in Europe and the crises in the PIGS obfuscate a broader reality: EU deficits are substantially smaller than America’s: the Euro zone’s average deficit lies at 6%, the broader EU’s at 6.4%, and the average government debt stands at 80% of GDP. The United States, with a significantly weaker welfare state than other Western countries, in contrast has a public debt of 99.5% of GDP and deficit equal to 11% of GDP (over $1.4 trillion).
Indeed, given the political impossibility of cutting old persons’ welfare in the US (Medicare and Social Security, by far the biggest items in the Federal budget and set to grow massively), the Republican congressional majority’s total rejection of tax hikes, and continued increases in military spending ($18 billion more for the Pentagon in 2011), one can be distinctly pessimistic on the US’s medium-term budgetary situation. The IMF, incidentally, predicts US debt will increase substantially more than European debt in the coming years.
No one has an interest in the US economy collapsing so America’s foreign creditors are unlikely to be as brutal as those of Greece or Ireland. Nonetheless, there should come a time when the Chinese and others will decide it is not in their best interest to keep throwing money at the US government…
Of course, Europe’s economy doesn’t have the spectacular growth of the emerging world. However, the situation of most Europeans, even with the economic crisis, cannot be compared with the vast majority of people who live in the developing world. And it should not forgotten, as we fret about China, India et al, that their tremendous economic growth is not a sign of their superiority or our decadence, but of their catching up. That other countries reach our standards of living should be cause of celebration, not fear or self-doubt.
The State of the Union
There is the European Union itself, that simultaneously bizarre, incomprehensible and inspiring entity that is going through some difficulties at the moment. As imperfect and troubled as it is, it remains one of the world’s unique and truly great historic achievements.
The EU is not perfect but I really think our pessimism is overdone. And I feel we are ungrateful for what we have. People are willing to die every month to get into Europe. Whole countries are doing all they can to share in our success: Serbia arrested its most infamous war criminal to please Brussels, Ukraine wants a Free Trade Agreement with the EU rather than a customs union with Russia, Turkey may be turning away but only after 70 years of consistent rebuffs.
True the so-called common foreign policy has been a big fat nothing. But the EU remains a genuine economic actor: the biggest economic bloc in the world, 27 national governments representing 500 million people, with all their varying languages and histories, negotiate as one with others countries and at the WTO. Given that international relations the 21st Century have been and look to remain dominated by economic matters, who is to say the EU is not a well-suited organization for it?
Certainly it says something when other regions are attempting to repeat this success in economic integration, with much more limited results, in as wide-ranging places as South America, Africa and the post-Soviet sphere.
Too often the assessment of Europe’s successes or failings is based on comparison with the United States. There should be more to EU-US relations than transatlantic pissing matches. However, for this particular article, this cannot be avoided. Our leaders, I think it is fair to say, are deeply infatuated with America and are willing to even wage wars (as boneheaded or illegal as they may be) on its behalf. And yet, I am convinced it is a profoundly sick nation.
A child born in the United States, rather than in any other nation, will be more likely to become overweight or obese (over 40% of adult population in 39 states), will spend more money on healthcare (twice the average for wealthy countries, over 16% of GDP) and will be more likely to go to prison (the world leader both absolutely and per capita with 2.3 million incarcerated). He would also be born in the most needlessly oil-dependent and greenhouse gas-emitting nation in the world. These problems, while they all exist in Europe, have not yet reached the scale of the United States.
“We’re doomed! Unless…”
Given these facts, I have some difficulty understanding European leaders envy of America and the more general pessimistic obsession with European decline. I cannot help thinking of something Sartre once said:
When a Frenchman, for example, tells another Frenchmen: “We’re screwed!” – which, as far as I know, happens about every day since 1930 – it’s a passionate speech, burning with rage and love, the orator putting himself in the same lot as his countrymen. He then generally adds ‘Unless…’ We see it for what it is: There is only one mistake to be made; if his recommendations are not followed to the letter, then and only then will the country disintegrate. In short, it’s a threat followed by a piece of advice.
For so many people, Europe is doomed, unless we keep out those Muslims, unless we dismantle the welfare state and give tax breaks to big business, unless we boost military expenditure and join the United States in yet more forlorn crusades… Forgive me if I don’t always think these are the most generous and disinterested pieces of advice.
And even supposed “good Europeans” engage in this. Federalists habitually claim Europe is doomed if it does not integrate more now. Javier Solana recently asserted that without Turkish membership the EU would become “a museum” rather than a “global player”. This sort of hyperbole is irresponsible and does no service either to the speaker or to the cause they purport to be promoting. And as stunted as integration is now, that is not the same as decline.
So after this long exposé, what more need be said? Europe on the whole is a very fine place to be born: As civilized, peaceful and prosperous as anywhere, including Canada, Japan or Australia, but in addition with an internal cultural diversity and international outlook that is really unique and valuable.
Of course, we should be careful that legitimate patriotic pride not lead to undue chest-thumping and to dreaded nationalism. The pride of any people or country should never depend on the denigrating of others or meaningless cries of “We’re number 1!” On the other hand, I do think we might legitimately paraphrase Churchill: Europe, clearly the worst place to be born in the world, except for all the others…