In Defense of Decadent Europe: Is it “the best place on Earth to be born”?

A beaming Donald Tusk holds the European flag with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

“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.


Public debt-to-GDP according to IMF figures.

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…

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10 Responses to In Defense of Decadent Europe: Is it “the best place on Earth to be born”?

  1. AK says:

    I agree that, in most respects, if you were to be born into a totally random set of conditions – race, socioeconomic background, etc. – then the EU as a bloc would be preferable to the US (I’m not counting Australia & Co. as they are small population nations that would be more appropriately with higher-end EU nations like Sweden than the EU as a whole).

    The US is best for a few kinds of people: e.g. the already upper-middle class (which is far richer and privileged than its European equivalent); the especially entrepreneurial; those (like me) who like guns, though I hear the Czech Rep. is also good for that; the very intelligent (because US universities are still far superior to European ones on almost everything – financing; research; etc). But for those who don’t fall into those categories, the EU is the better option.

    I agree with you on almost everything on economics and demography. You could also add that if incarceration and prison jobs could be counted as unemployment, then the US would be well behind the EU even on that metric.

    But one thing I think should be stressed more is the sheer variability between member states. Some like Sweden are successful on almost all fronts (high salaries, high safety net, good demography); those like Germany, Austria, even Czech Rep. are also great places to live enjoying good growth. France muddles somewhere in between; it also has substantial fiscal problems, though its still better than – as is its productivity, welfare, and social mobility – Britain (perhaps the most overrated country in the EU). But the whole Med seems to be in a deep fiscal and demographic trap, and in stark contrast to the 1960’s-1990’s, with living standards beginning to sharply diverge from those of its northern peers.

    And this is a big challenge to the EU. While the US also has big divisions – compare, say, Massachusetts with Mississippi – its not as acute or one-sided. Many of the richer states are the ones experiencing big fiscal problems. Life for menial workers sucks in California or the South, but it sucks almost as much for those in the rich and liberal North-East (see Barbara Ehrenreich); in contrast, low-paid workers in Sweden have it a lot, lot better than in Romania or even Italy or the UK. The EU has not developed a culture of unity like the one that binds the US together; meanwhile, individual US states do not consider themselves nations. This will not necessarily lead to the EU’s unraveling (or reconfiguration into a North European union), though that is a possibility if the fiscal situation grows worse rather than better, but it will constrain Europe’s ability to coherently act as a “global player.”

    Nonetheless, all this does not detract from the fact that this article is an excellent and spirited defense of the EU, and a formidable challenge to its skeptics.

    • I agree with just most of your criticisms. There’s a significant threat of lasting divergence between North and South in Europe. I am hoping they will be softened as the recession ends and growth returns. I also don’t know if there are any structural factors that will ultimately prevent convergence. The UK in the 1970s had a GDP/capita fully 20% bellow that of France or Italy (a stunning reversal) but this was not a sign of lasting decline or impossible recovery.

      Also, I would point out that the divergences within the U.S. are if anything wider, looking at GDP/capita, compare the Deep South to the rest and it’s almost 1/3 poorer. The European southern nations are not that different yet. There is of course the East-West divide, much bigger than anything in the U.S., but substantial convergence is occurring, with Poland in the lead.

      Your doubts about political union are well-taken. On the one hand, I do wonder what a “global actor” is today, outside the economic sphere, and whether it is desirable to be one. I see the Chinese are very cautious and that will ensure their prosperity. On the other, for Europe to reach its full potential it will need decidedly more unity than it has now. Currently the centrifugal forces are winning out – the centre-right majority, the ECB and Germany are doing semi-permanent damage to the EU in this regard – but there’s no telling what more integration will be achieved in the coming years.

    • Joe says:

      I disagree. Americans born into poverty have exitted it at a rate unimaginable in Europe without abberations such as the collapse of the Soviet sphere and the like.

      I also have to take to task the usual, unthought babble about “ultra capitalism” in the US. It’s nothing of the sort, not anything like the near east. The US has a significant tranfer-of-wealth mechanism, both socialized as a part of government, and through the effective diffusion of private wealth through the non-governmental part of the economy.

      To boot, a commenter below notes quite accurately that the divergence found between better off and lesser well off parts of the united states are not any different that one finds in the EU. To fixate on comparing north-south to north-south is a rather mornic deflection. To be accurate, the US has a west-to-south-central and east-to-south-central axial form, and has had one for 40 years.

      The visuals don’t matter. What matters is that the world not be seen as static: while some have movie-imprinted fantasies about the deep south, the fact is that the south is where the economic growth is. To which I say: look east, and realize that things change.

      That’s not a social failure unless you believe that people do not do anything about their circumstances and that the earth is flat. If it makes you feel any better, just think of Arkansas and Bulgaria as being in transition, because in a decade you could find yourself wondering how to make the (possible future) decrepic and sclerotic cities of, say, Miami and Vienna into decent places to live again.

      • “Ultra-capitalism” is a very real ideology, expressed by the Tea Party, much of the Republican Party, Americans for Tax Reform, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and others. This ideology has no real equivalent in either nature or scope outside of North America.

        I did not mention the American North-South divide except to say it was smaller than Europe’s East-West divide.

        The rest of your post is incoherent. I stay by my facts: over 17% of GDP is absorbed by the inefficient healthcare sector, the U.S. is the most obese nation in the world, it is the most oil-dependent country in the world (more than the EU despite domestic reserves and a much smaller population), it is among the highest per capita CO2 emitters, its private and public debt situations are less sustainable than the European average, and it has 2.3 million people behind bars (7-8 times per capita of other developed countries.

        These are facts, do what you want with them. But this post was not meant to be principally about the United States, but about Europe and its very real and underappreciated succeses.

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  3. Chrisius Imperator Maximus Potensque says:

    Eh? Ukrainians prefer union with Russia to EU membership by a factor of like 2 to 1.

    • See comments of Ukrainian Deputy Economy Minister Valery Piatnitsky on the subject:
      “Does your commitment to the FTA negotiations with the EU imply that Ukraine will not join the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?”
      “Indeed. Joining the so-called Customs Union is no option for us for the moment. This Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan is only in an initial stage. They are still developing the regulations and it will take another five or 10 years to establish this customs union.”

  4. Aaron says:

    Good article. And at last, some European pride…

    Similarly, here’s a quote for the day :
    “”Hey, this is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We snap our fingers at kings. We laugh at popes. When we have built up tyrants, we have brought them down. And we have nuclear f~~~~ing weapons.”” Ken MacLeod

  5. anna otse says:

    Excellent article! keep up the good work!

  6. Aussie Girl in Europe says:

    Excellent article!! As an Australian who has chosen to spend much of the last decade in and out of Europe, I hope this article will help Europeans finally understand my choice!
    Sure, Australia has sunny weather, a good economy and plenty of beaches. But our nation is far from perfect – Australians have some of the highest obesity rates in the world, there is an enormous gap in living standards/health/life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and Australia is only just now “catching up” to many European nations in policies on environment and representation of women in business/politics. Our education and health care systems are probably better than those of the US, but not as good as those found in Northern Europe (though nor do we pay such high taxes). I could definitely go on like this!!….
    So I would urge Europeans not to take Europe’s benefits too much for granted – forget being envious of the USA- Europe has a lot of be happy about.

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