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Thursday, April 29, 2004

The EU at an Historical Juncture Amid Gloom and Pessimism

This brief commentary has been prodded by a good article by Dominique Moisi in the International Herald Tribune on the EU's problems and prospects at a time when the Union has chug-a-chugged, struggling all the way, kilometer after kilometer, to a critical juncture in its history: in two days, 10 new East European states will be joining it . . . almost all former Communist countries, with three of them part of the Soviet imperial state. Almost all of these countries, you should note --- Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, the tiny three Baltic states, Bulgaria, Rumania, Slovakia, and Slovenia --- are already in NATO, their post-Communist, post-Soviet independence now secured by that alliance.

For the EU, the expansion should be a time of celebration everywhere in Europe. It ends the division of the Continent that emerged after WWI with the Communist triumph in the Soviet Union, then its imperial expansion eastward, then --- after WWII --- its hold over all of East and Central Europe save in Yugoslavia and Albania to the boundary between East and West Europe. It also marks the definitive triumph of democratic development and market-oriented economies. Alas, the existing West European members of the EU are anything but jubilant right now, hardly in a mood to celebrate the historic moment . . . or, come to think of it, anything at all. Such is the gloomy mood that prevails all around the EU. Even the title of the IHT article, "Europe Comes Together in Fear and Trepidation" captures pretty faithfully that widespread gloom and pessimism. [For the stats on public opinion, see the Euobarometer Report for Autumn, 2003, in this buggy article.]

For that matter, even the new East European members aren't certain what kind of European Union they're joining, what with all its huge problems set out below. Those of you who have followed the several buggy articles on the EU's economic and political problems and prospects --- especially back in the late fall last year and into January this year --- will note how the following commentary, plus the link to article in question, are in line with the lengthy arguments set out in those earlier buggy pieces.

Part One:

Dominique Moisi, the author of the IHT article, will be well known to most of you: above all the students in ps 129 last quarter (the war on terrorism), where we read an article or two of his about EU-US relations. A Harvard-trained Ph.D. in political science who heads a prestigious institute in Paris, he's always informative and thoughtful, bringing to bear a solid theoretical perspective on international relations that is rare for a French commentator . . . even a professor. He's best known for a book he wrote back in the late 1990s. Signed by him and the then French Foreign Minister in the left-wing government of Lionel Jospin, Hubert Vendrine, its argument coined the term "hyper-power" (hyper-puissance) to describe the US global position.  


In Line with Buggy Views

The earlier buggy articles on the increasingly divergent prospects between the US and almost all the EU countries --- whether economic, techological, diplomatic, or military: for that matter, overall national solidarity and societal vigor --- appeared, as we just noted, late last fall and into this winter. See, for instance, this link, and this one, and this one. In the latter article, there's a link to a summary of an official admission of the EU executive Commission that its highly touted goals at a summit meeting in Lisbon at the end of the 1990s --- namely, to make the EU the most vigorous and technological advanced economic region in the world --- are not going to be met.

That is putting it mildly.

For the last three years, the EU has been stagnating economically, and it's clear by now that with the exception of a handful of countries --- Britain with its pro-market orientation and four or five very tiny homogenous states in Scandinavia, plus perhaps Holland and Ireland --- these economic troubles aren't cyclical: they're structural, part-and-parcel of the failure to reform vigorously the overweening regulatory apparatus, high taxes, and a vast network of welfare that have helped erode entrepreneurial vigor, the work ethos, and a sense of personal responsibility among far too many Europeans, most of whom, it seems, are mainly excited about vacation time . . . the Germans especially. Studies show they work about 9-10 weeks less a year than Americans. Well, if that's what they want, fine. You pays your money and you gets your choice, no? The trouble is, German economic growth --- for that matter, growth anywhere in the EU outside Scandinavia and Britain --- has ground to a halt for three years now. Over the previous decade, German growth wasn't much better. If anything, it resembled Japanese stagnation.

Meanwhile, in Asia, billions of Chinese, Indians, and others are working frantically to raise their standards of living.

Hard to believe that those billions of toiling, increasingly educated Asians are upset that the leisure-loving Germans and other West Europeans live in countries whose governments --- faced with stagnant growth, declining work forces, and swarms of welfare and other social commitments --- seem to be going slowly broke . . . unable to meet all their commitments and increasingly worried, if they seek to deregulate their economies and reduce spending and taxes, about either rejection by the voters in the next election or social turmoil that includes spasms of uncoiled violence.

Moisi's General Thrust

Moisi deals with the EU's problems in fairly general terms, focusing mainly on identity challenges of the member-states without ever saying exactly what these are. The crux of those problems is, however, easy to state: even as the existing 15 West European members have admirably overcome their violent, age-old nationalisms --- bringing war to one another repeatedly over the last several centuries, WWI and WWII the ultimate destructive outcomes --- they haven't managed in the European Union itself to create a well-anchored, pan-European identity to replace the decline of strong nationalist attachments that were essential to the new peace and cooperation on the continent. Britain is the main exception.

With a strong national identity --- the case of the US and Israel --- comes a strong sense of national purpose and a willingness to fight, if need be, for those countries' ideals and security. This isn't just an American view, let alone that of the buggy prof. It is a major thesis of another prominent EU observer, also a Harvard trained Ph.D. in political science, Josef Joffe . . . the editor of the prestigious German weekly, Die Zeit. In the an article published last December, Joffe notes how the envies, resentments, and social conflicts and anxieties pulsating around the EU have led to obsessive demonizing and double-standards when it comes to judging the US and Jews and Israel.

One reason he cites: the powerful national identities and no less powerful national determination to protect national independence and ideals, if need be with force. For a follow-up exchange between Joffe and some critics in Commentary, the influential American monthly where Joffe's article was published, see the letters column there this month.


Part Two:

All that is bad enough for West European vigor. What aggravates is a second cultural trend that has further undermined the emergence of a sound, non-aggressive form of strongly anchored European identity: the harmful intellectual impact of left-wing multiculturalisms . . . a set of self-deluding illusions

  • that the EU had a magical formula for protecting its independence through internal cooperation without strong military defenses,
  • that the EU would miraculously become a world-power influence on its own without effective federalism and a coherent foreign policy without military clout,
  • that the rapidly growing Islamic populations --- at a time of stagnant and declining European births --- could be easily assimilated to secular, increasingly post-modernist European life,
  • that violent crime, which is now generally worse in West Europe than in the US --- Europeans shown in UN-sponsored surveys to be far more worried about going out into public spaces than Americans --- was something that afflicted violent Yanks, not civilized people like themselves,
  • and that the UN's various declaratory pronouncements actually meant something in their own right . . . an illusion exploited by the cunning French government last year, unsuccessfully of course, to try cornering the US government into giving it a permanent veto over American military initiatives abroad.

Add in the related illusory belief that you could endlessly appease Arab governments, however obnoxiously repressive, by increasingly strident anti-Israeli rhetoric and proclamations --- with the EU then serving as a magnet between the Arabs and Islamic countries and the US --- and you have a set of delusions that are finally coming home to roost.


No, Correction.

One more self-delusion in European life has to be stressed here: the belief that the EU welfare state and constant anti-market regulations could pile up endlessly even as European growth rates, save in Britain with its pro-market policies since the era of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and in four or five very tiny states with homogeneous, well-educated populations, ground down toward stagnation . . . the work year ever diminishing, vacation after vacation, sick-leave and paid public holidays extended to boot, with pensioners living largely on the taxes of ever shrinking work forces. Somehow, eager, hard-working East Europeans, Asians, and others don't seem to think they owe the easy-going West European populations and their declining work ethos some sort of livelihood to keep them chugging along happily into some blissful retirement-future, decade after decade until the sun freezes and life on earth leaves the universe to ET's descendants in a distant galaxy.

Sidebar Observation: For an amusing, yet telling article that analyzes European illusions about radical Islamist tendencies and Islamist terrorism --- a form of "managerial realism" that contrasts with the US tendencies to take the struggle against them to the heartland of the Arab and Muslim world, in a "transformative" effort to alter their societies and political systems --- see Mark Steyn here.


Part III:

What then are the concrete EU problems that underpin the identity crisis and the gloom throughout the EU member-countries?

  • demographic stagnation,
  • an aging population that will be living on state-pensions with ever fewer workers to tax, high unemployment (especially for youth),
  • very slow economic growth save in Britain (outside the eurozone and following deregulatory and reduced welfare policies) and the small Scandinavian countries (plus, again, maybe Holland and Ireland),
  • massive domestic backlashes against governments seeking to deregulate and reduce taxes and social spending, and growing . . . a political obstacle to overhauling the EU economies that won't get better, only worse,
  • and increasingly alienated Islamic populations.

To this must be added now a real fear, everywhere, of Islamist terrorism. For that matter, assassination attempts against Swedish Ministers or Dutch politicians or Italian professors revising labor legislation for the government or several attempts directed at the top EU officials this last winter were probably instigated by non-Muslim Europeans, mainly of the alienated left.

Small wonder that back in the late fall, the latest Eurobarometer polls showed that fewer than half the EU populations even thought the EU, on balance, was a good thing.


And So?

Moisi, to repeat, deals with these problems in more general terms, especially the worrying flux in European identities at a time when the EU economies are still stagnating --- GDP growth the last two years averaged less than 1.0% and won't likely be better this year (vs. about 3.0% in 2002, 4.0% last year, and probably 4-5.0% this year in the US) --- and when public opinion is gloomier than ever. At a time, too --- a critical juncture --- when 10 new East European countries are joining, even though the existing 15 member-states haven't been able to agree on a new Constitution with new decision-making powers . . . however far its ratification would still leave the EU from a unified form of federalism.

Small wonder that even the French government has just announced that no, it won't hold a referendum on the new EU constitution, assuming it's ever signed by the member-states or agreement to it looks like materializing in the future.