Night Thoughts on Europe

Night Thoughts on Europe

Mini Teaser: Europe’s problems go far beyond deflating currency and rising debt. It suffers from a lack of will, a crisis of confidence—and a serious identity problem. The once-great superpower has already fallen. Centuries of predominance slip away.

by Author(s): Walter Laqueur

European integration was so difficult not because it had to overcome what some called the artificial concept of nation-statehood (nation-statehood had developed over the centuries; perhaps the world and Europe would have been better off without it, but it was certainly not artificial) but because the community of communities was artificial. All investigations have shown that people feel an attachment to the place and the country in which they were born (90 percent), but much less so to a wider institution involving a different way of life or a different language. According to a 1996 Eurobarometer survey, only 51 percent of Europeans “felt European,” and this figure seems not to have increased since. Various attempts have been made to strengthen the feeling of a common cultural heritage, including a European anthem and a European flag, so far to little effect. Some common cultural events have been slightly more successful, including the Eurovision Song Contests (which also generated a considerable amount of ill will as the result of political maneuvering) and the Vienna New Year’s Eve Johann Strauss concerto (but this was also enjoyed by many millions in China and Japan).

It would be unfair to conclude that Europe has become lazy, but it certainly has become inward looking and lethargic, lacking curiosity and enterprise. There is nothing wrong with the desire to enjoy life, but it is disconcerting if this is accompanied by a dearth of interest in the future.

Sometimes in history profound changes have come with the rise of a new generation, the eternal lucky chance of mankind, to echo Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. But young generations have also produced great mischief on the Continent, such as the victories of Fascism and Communism which, initially at least, were movements of the youth.

If there will be a rejuvenation of Europe, it will come to a considerable extent from young people with non-European backgrounds. But with notable exceptions, Europe has not been able to attract the best of them, and there is no need to recapitulate in detail the great problems that have arisen in the integration of so many of the new immigrants. In any case, the youth cohort will shrink in Europe in the decades to come. The Continent is aging as a result of low fertility and rising life expectancy. This means not only increasing pressure on the European health services and pension schemes but also, quite likely, a decline in the standard of living. At the same time, paradoxically, massive youth unemployment is likely to persist, and the young will have to shoulder the burden of the massive debts accumulated in the past. A far smaller cohort of young people will have to work for the well-being of a far larger group of the old.

Hence generational conflict will be the new norm. Youth revolts were not infrequent in nineteenth-century Europe, but they were mainly political not social in character. More recently, rebellions of the young have taken place in France, Britain, Spain and Greece. Will national (or European) solidarity be strong enough to withstand these pressures in the coming years?

There is an almost unlimited number of possibilities for the failure of the European Union, but it would appear that the decisive issues are not the technical decisions that will be taken concerning the economy and the finances of the Continent but the deeper political and psychological factors—nationalism or postnationalism, whether dynamism or exhaustion will prove stronger. There are trends that can be predicted with a certain degree of probability, but there are also the imponderabilia which cannot be measured or weighted, let alone predicted, because they can be subject to sudden change. And it seems that the imponderabilia will be more decisive.

MANY EUROPEANS complain about a lack of democracy and they fear, rightly perhaps, that a Europe dominated by Brussels will be even less democratic. Few complain about a lack of leadership even though this is certainly as much needed if not more. For Europe has been drifting, and it is not even clear in what direction.

How much democracy can there be in the world of tomorrow? The system of the old Polish parliament with its liberum veto, in which the negative vote of one sufficed to bring any initiative to a halt, certainly will not work. The last Treaty of Lisbon (2009) brought some movement in this respect, but in practice it has not changed that much. Germany and France got together to streamline the EU make the decision process quicker and more efficient, and impose stricter regulations and controls. But it did not help much, and there has not been full agreement between the two. Other countries did not like the attempts to remodel the EU in the image of France and Germany, however badly they needed help. But they, of course, had no alternative either.

Perhaps Robert Cooper is right. He has been advising EU foreign policy on and off for a long time. In his view Europe is postmodern, believing in peaceful interdependence and modern cooperation, whereas the policy of other states is rooted (at best) in ideas of traditional zones of influence and balance of power. But how will the postmodern survive in a world in which all too often chaos prevails, not the laws of the International Criminal Court but the laws of Hobbes? The postmodernists will have to act according to two sets of rules: one between “civilized” nations and another (“the rougher methods of an earlier era”) when dealing with the ruffians who have not yet reached the advanced stage of postmodernism. This may sound sensible, but it is impractical. “Liberal imperialism” is an unnecessarily provocative term, not a realistic policy for sending a few thousand people for a limited time to a faraway country with the order not to shoot.

Cooper’s theses, not surprisingly, have irritated those willing to forgive clerical fascism, dictatorship, even genocide, provided they happen outside Europe and the United States. But the real weakness of this policy is elsewhere—it embodies not only discrimination but also a determination that seems to be absent on the Continent these days. Europe as a forceful player would be most welcome, but how does one become a forceful player? Does Europe in its apathy want it? As Schopenhauer put it, to wish is easy but to wish to wish (wollen wollen) is next to impossible. In a recent book entitled Un monde sans Europe? (2011), Pierre Hassner writes that Europe should be a factor of equilibrium, of coordination and conciliation because it is strong enough to influence others and to defend itself but not to conquer and dominate: “Europe needs the world, the world needs Europe.” Noble words, true words—who could not agree with such sentiments? But does the world share these sentiments, does Europe have the inner strength, the ambition to fulfill this mission?

The Asian political philosophers and statesmen were probably right when they told the Europeans that their more authoritarian model of governance will be more suitable to confront the tasks of the years to come. Europe, as they see it, is a spent force, essentially a customs union that never seriously intended to become a global power. They find it strange that Europe seems not to be aware of its modest role in world affairs and has not come to terms with it. Whether there will be one Europe, or a Europe des patries (in Charles de Gaulle’s phrase), or no united Europe at all, it will hardly be more democratic than at present. It will be increasingly difficult in the struggle for survival to maintain the present level of democratic freedoms.

There never was a European superstate, not even the blueprint for one. True, there are common interests, but could not Latin America serve as a model? The countries of Latin America live in peace with each other and cooperate to a certain extent; they have established a common market of sorts (Mercosur), providing free transit of goods, and a customs union. Two hundred years ago, Venezuelan Simón Bolívar had more ambitious plans for unifying the region, but his vision collided with Latin American realities and was not to happen, though these countries had much more in common than Europe (even, with the exception of Brazil, a common language). There have been of late some attempts to establish a closer political framework, but it seems doubtful whether substantial progress will be made.

The prospects for European prosperity are far worse. Poor in raw materials and energy resources, Europe will find it difficult to maintain its standard of living and social achievements unless united. Unlike Latin America, its geopolitical location makes it more exposed to political pressures from its energy suppliers. Unless economic governance is strengthened, there will be recurrent crises, the imbalances between the countries will increase, and there will be a return to economic nationalism and protectionism. Unless there is a common energy policy, Europe will find it difficult to compete in world markets. Unless there is a common defense policy, Europe will count for even less in world affairs.

Image: Pullquote: The Europe I have known is in the process of disappearing. In its place will be something in between a regional power and indeed a valuable museum.Essay Types: Essay