The Slow Death of Europe

Crises on the Continent go far beyond economics. The days of European strength and influence are over.

“The twenty-first century may yet belong to Europe.” Thus said the late Tony Judt, author of a widely praised history of Europe after the Second World War. Historians are not necessarily prophets, and our century has a while to go, but the prospects of such a future coming to pass are not brilliant at present. Tony Judt was in good and numerous company at the time, in America even more so than on the Continent, and the reasons for such misplaced optimism (which has now quite often given way to panic) will no doubt be studied in the years to come.

Some five years ago in a book entitled The Last Days of Europe I dealt with Europe’s decline—and was criticized for my pessimism. And yet I now feel uneasy facing the apocalyptic utterances of yesterday’s Euro-enthusiasts. For even if Europe’s decline is irreversible, there is no reason that it should become a collapse.

At a time of deep, multiple crises in Europe it is too easy to ridicule the delusions of yesteryear. The postwar generations 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 generations had not. They had had quite enough of unrest and conflict. For decades many Continental societies had more or less achieved these aims and had every reason to be proud of their progress. Europe was quiet and civilized.

Europe’s success was based on recent painful experience: the horrors of two world wars; the lessons of dictatorship; the experiences of fascism and communism. Above all, it was based on a feeling of European identity and common values—or so it appeared at the time. Euroskeptics suspected it was simply a community of material interests; it began, after all, as an iron, steel and coal union. Jean Monnet, the father of the European Union, saw the dangers ahead. He later said that he would have put the emphasis on culture rather than economics if he had to start all over again.

When did things start to go wrong? It would seem the immediate crisis is certainly one of sovereign debt, of common currency and of other financial issues. It was no doubt a mistake to believe that an economic union could be established in the absence of a political one. And yet, did the current crisis perhaps happen because the European idea (meaning the welfare state), the basis of the scheme, was eroded?

With all its importance, the economic crisis is only part of our sad story—and probably not even the decisive one. For the present debacle is also one of an apparent lack of a common European identity and values, of national interests prevailing over a shared European interest. It is a crisis of lack of solidarity, leadership and—perhaps above all—political will. It is a crisis of internal tensions, of failed integration at home (as shown, for instance, by recent events in Britain). For many years European elites lived in a state of denial; they wanted more democracy but were unprepared for the erosion of authority that led to anarchy.

To a considerable degree, the political elite, the media and public opinion became oblivious of the darker aspect of domestic politics. They largely ignored the growing disparity in income and the effects of youth unemployment. Those preoccupied with foreign affairs had grown up (as British diplomat Robert Cooper put it) in a belief in peaceful interdependence and modern cooperation, whereas the policy of the rest of the world was rooted at best in ideas of traditional spheres of influence and balance of power. And meanwhile public opinion gradually moved away from erstwhile belief in Europe.

Such false optimism and the subsequent collapse of illusions was bound to lead to dejection. Did Europe still have a future, would it still exist a decade or two from now? Or would it revert to what it had been before—a mere geographical concept? One is reminded of Prince Metternich’s famous letter to the Austrian ambassador in Paris (and later also to Palmerston) in which he said that while “Italy” was a useful geographical term it had no meaning or reality as a political concept. True, at about the same time Carlo Alberto Amadeo, king of Sardinia, in an equally famous aside said Italia fara da se (Italy will take care of itself). One hundred and fifty years later (and considering the present state of Italy) it is still not certain whether Metternich was right or the Sardinian king. The present state and future prospects of Europe are not dissimilar to those of nineteenth-century Italy.

Many Europeans complain about a lack of democracy and they fear, rightly perhaps, that a Europe dominated by Brussels would be even less democratic. But to survive the Continent needs leadership. How much democracy could there be in this Europe of tomorrow? Some Asian political philosophers in Beijing as well as in Singapore have been advising us that the Asian, more authoritarian model will be more suitable (and efficient) to confront the tasks of the years to come.

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