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Europe vs. America

The European Dream isn’t as bad a book as some reviewers have suggested and it has something important to say. Of contemporary America Rifkin writes:

With only our religious fervor to hold on to, we have become a “chosen people” without a narrative—making America potentially a more dangerous and lonely place to be.

But the book would have been a whole lot better had Rifkin stuck to what he knows about and not tried so hard to say something “important.”

T.R. Reid is a journalist and his account of European superiority, which covers much the same territory as Rifkin’s, is shorter, sharper, more readable, and less pretentious. It has some amusing vignettes: notably of American innocents—Jack Welch, George W. Bush (and most recently Bill Gates)—caught up in a brave new world of European regulations they can neither understand nor ignore. And Reid, like Rifkin, demonstrates very effectively just why the European Union, with its regulatory powers, its wealth, and its institutional example, is a place Americans will need to take extremely seriously in coming decades.

But though their books are timely, neither writer is saying anything very new. Their damning bill of particulars regarding the United States is fam-iliar to Europeans—it was in 1956 that Jimmy Porter, in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, sardonically observed that “it’s pretty dreary living in the American age—unless of course you’re American,” and one way or another that thought has echoed down the decades to the present day. But just because there is something profoundly amiss in the US today, and something no less intuitively appealing about the European social compact, this does not license us to tell fairy stories.

Anyone seeking in these books an account of the origins of the EU will be led badly astray. Reid and Rifkin trip over themselves to praise the founding fathers of Europe for their foresight and wisdom in guiding Europe to its present eminence. According to Reid, in “the years following the Schuman Declaration, the European Movement took the continent by storm.” The European Coal and Steel Community was a “rip-roaring economic success.” Rifkin goes further: Europe, he writes, is “a giant freewheeling experimental laboratory for rethinking the human condition…”(!)

These claims are absurd.10 The European Union is what it is: the largely unintended product of decades of negotiations by West European politicians seeking to uphold and advance their national and sectoral interests. That’s part of its problem: it is a compromise on a continental scale, designed by literally hundreds of committees. Actually this makes the EU more interesting and in some ways more impressive than if it merely incarnated some uncontentious utopian blueprint. In the same vein, it seems silly to write, as Rifkin does, about the awfulness of American “cookie-cutter housing tracts” as yet another symptom of American mediocrity without acknowledging Europe’s own eyesores. This is a man who has never stared upon the urban brutalism of Sarcelles, a postwar dormitory town north of Paris; who has not died a little in Milton Keynes; who has avoided the outer suburbs of modern Milan. Reid is right to insist that Europe has the best roads, the fastest trains, the cheapest plane fares. And yes, the EU is indeed closer, as Rifkin notes, “to the pulse of the changes that are transforming the world into a globalized society.” But it isn’t perfect by any means.

Indeed, Europe is facing real problems. But they are not the ones that American free-market critics recount with such grim glee. Yes, the European Commission periodically makes an ass of itself, aspiring to regulate the size of condoms and the curvature of cucumbers. The much-vaunted Stability Pact to constrain national expenditure and debt has broken down in acrimony, though with no discernible damage to the euro it was designed to protect. And pensions and other social provisions will be seriously underfunded in decades to come unless Europeans have more children, welcome more immigrants, work a few more years before retiring, take somewhat less generous unemployment compensation, and make it easier for businesses to employ young people. But these are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state.11

Europe’s true dilemmas lie elsewhere. In the Netherlands, in Paris and Antwerp and other cities, antagonism and incomprehension between the indigenous local population and a fast-growing minority of Muslims (one million in the Netherlands, over five million in France, perhaps 13 million in the EU to date) has already moved on from graffiti and no-go zones to arson, assaults, and assassinations. Turks, Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, and others have been arriving in Western Europe since the 1960s. We are now seeing the emergence of a third generation: in large part unemployed, angry, alienated, and increasingly open to the communitarian appeal of radical Islam.12

For nearly four decades mainstream European politicians turned a blind eye to all this: to the impact of de facto segregated housing; isolated unintegrated communities; and the rising tide of fearful, resentful white voters convinced that the boat was “full.” It has taken Jean-Marie Le Pen, the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, and a flock of demagogic anti-immigrant parties from Norway to Italy to awaken Europeans to this crisis—and it augurs badly that the response of everyone from Tony Blair to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has been to cry “Havoc!” and wind up the drawbridge.

For the other problem facing Europe, and the two are of course connected, is the pressure on its outer edges. The European Union is almost too attractive for its own good—in contrast with the United States, which is widely disliked for what it does, the EU appeals just by virtue of what it is. Refugees and illegal immigrants from half of Africa periodically drown in their desperate efforts to cross the Straits of Gibraltar or beach themselves on Italy’s southernmost islands—or else they land safely, only to get shipped back. Turkey had been trying for nearly forty years to gain admission to the European club before its application was (reluctantly) taken up last month. Ukraine’s best hope for a stable democratic future lies inside Europe—or at least with the prospect of one day getting there, which would greatly strengthen the hand of Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters in the aftermath of their recent victory. And the same of course is true for the remnant states of former Yugoslavia. But while Brussels is all too well aware of the risks entailed in ignoring Africa or leaving Ukraine or Bosnia to fes-ter at its gates—much less casting 70 million Turkish Muslims into the fold of radical Islam—Europe’s leaders are deeply troubled at the pros-pect (and the cost) of committing the EU to extending itself to the edges of Asia.

These are Europe’s real challenges. The EU may be, as Reid and Rifkin suggest, a luminous model of trans-state cooperation, justice, and harmony.13 But it will not be easy for the EU to integrate its ethnic and religious minorities, regulate immigration, or admit Turkey on workable terms.14 Yet should it mismanage the permanent crisis on its eastern and southern borders, Europe is going to be in very serious difficulties indeed. And that, not some sort of atavistic anti-Americanism or rocket-envy, is why many reasonable Europeans and their leaders are utterly enraged by President George W. Bush.

To the Bush administration “Islam” is an abstraction, the politically serviceable object of what Washington insiders now call the GWOT: the Global War on Terror. For the US, the Middle East is a faraway land, a convenient place to export America’s troubles so that they won’t have to be addressed in the “homeland.” But the Middle East is Europe’s “near abroad,” as well as a major trading partner. From Tangier to Tabriz, Europe is surrounded by the “Middle East.” A growing number of Europeans come from this Middle East. When the EU begins accession talks with Turkey, it will be anticipating its own insertion into the Middle East. America’s strategy of global confrontation with Islam is not an option for Europe. It is a catastrophe.


Timothy Garton Ash would probably not dissent from much of the preceding analysis. In his engaging new book he actually goes further than Rifkin and Reid in certain respects. As an international citizen, he notes, the Uni-ted States is irresponsibly delinquent. The EU gave away $36.5 billion in development aid in 2003. The US managed just one third that amount—and much of that foreign aid either went to Israel or else came with strings attached: nearly 80 percent of all American “development aid” obliges recipients to spend the money on American goods and services. On Iraq alone the US spent eight times the amount it gave in overseas aid to everyone else. The US is the meanest of all the rich countries on the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. The Europeans are by far the most generous.

There is more. The US contains just 5 percent of the world’s population (and falling), but it is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas output per annum. Each year our atmosphere has to absorb twenty metric tons of carbon dioxide for every American man, woman, and child; but just nine tons for every European. And the American share continues to grow, even as the Bush administra-tion blocks any international action on pollution or global warming. The real weapons of mass destruction, in Garton Ash’s view, are global poverty and incipient environmental catastrophe. On these genuine threats to our common civilization, the European Union has a strikingly superior record. Contemporary American pundits, the “terribles simplificateurs” who babble glibly of Mars and Venus or Clashing Civilizations, attract Garton Ash’s amused disdain. But on the insouciant indifference of the present incumbent of the White House he is utterly unforgiving: “It was said of ancient Rome that the emperor Nero fiddled while the city burned. In the new Rome, the president fiddled while the Earth burned.”

All the same, Free World is by no means just another indictment of America. Timothy Garton Ash knows Europe—or, rather, he knows the many different Europes, the variable geometry of squabbles and interests and alliances that limit the EU’s capacity to make itself felt in world politics. He shares the widespread English suspicion of French mischief-making. And he balances his remarks about the US with some well-aimed shots at the Common Agricultural Fund—noting that while in the year 2000 the EU donated $8 per head to sub-Saharan Africa, it managed to set aside, in the form of subsidies, $913 for every cow in Europe.

But for all that Garton Ash is actually quite optimistic about both Europe and the United States. More surprisingly, he is optimistic—even, as it seems to me, a touch irenic—about the future of the Western alliance. In part, to be sure, this is driven by what he sees as urgent necessity: the West had better stop squabbling and find a way to work together for the common good, because it only has about twenty years left before China (and then India) becomes a great power and the narcissistic minor differences between Europe and America will be lost to view: “In a longer historical perspective, this may be our last chance to set the agenda of world politics.”

  1. 10

    As is Reid’s description of David Beckham as “Europe’s Michael Jordan.” Beckham is a journeyman footballer with a first-class hairdo and a celebrity wife. He would never have made the cut in the days of Pele, Johann Cruyff, or Ferenc Puskas. His prominence on European sports pages illustrates the power of transcontinental marketing, but in this as other respects Beckham is just a depressing monument to the spirit of our age: he is, in Camus’s phrase, a “prophète vide pour temps médiocre.” The pertinent analogy here is not Michael Jordan but Dennis Rodman.

  2. 11

    In any case, America’s present indebtedness is at least as much a lien on the future as Europe’s welfare commitments. And Americans who point fingers at the European pension gap should recall that were United Airlines, General Motors, or any other semisolvent company to abandon its unfundable pension commitments, it is US taxpayers who would be left with the tab.

  3. 12

    For a thoughtful and rather more optimistic account of the French case, see Herman Lebovics, Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age (Duke University Press, 2004).

  4. 13

    Perhaps not so very harmonious: already West European leaders are asking why they should make generous budget transfers to new members like Slovakia, only to see the latter use these subsidies to hold down their local corporate tax rates and thereby steal business and factories from their more expensive Western colleagues.

  5. 14

    The Turkish dilemma is complicated, and well-meaning European liberals can find themselves on both sides of the debate. For a sensitive and cogently reasoned summary of the case for keeping Turkey at a certain distance, see the interview with Robert Badinter, a former French minister of justice and longstanding Europhile, in Le Figaro, December 13, 2004.

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