TCS Daily

Whither Europe?

By Max Borders - February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's fence-mending trip through the EU will be greeted with all manner of protests. A curious mixture of antiwar hostility, groupthink, and Eurotopianism is the prevailing sentiment over there. While many Europeans will have questions for the President about Iraq, Iran and his next four years as leader of the free world -- there are some things we've been wondering about Europe over here.

Portuguese, Czechs and Germans are coming to think of themselves as Europeans. The development of this self-concept is vital to the project of European unification, which is still formative. But aren't more cautious Europeans still right to ask: under what exactly are we uniting? Is Europe's institutional framework one that leaves room for flexibility and entrepreneurial dynamism? Are individual rights, cultural norms and state sovereignty being sacrificed for aims that are still too vague? And is it too late to reverse the immigration policies that have left millions to balkanize Europe -- unassimilated -- to form a dependent, but often resentful, underclass?

Unification under what?

When we think of the EU, we think of regulations, directives and decisions. But we would like to know: what about the simple institutional rules of the game? We worry that this edifice is making little improvements upon the vast array of technical minutiae that once plagued the individual sovereign states. Now, it seems, the only difference is that this legislative latticework is just bigger and more comprehensive -- equal in its application, but equally stifling. Ours is a picture of:

        A Europe whose regulatory structures are growing faster than her economies. Only parts 
        of Eastern Europe can boast respectable economic growth, and we fear that is because 
        they are not yet under the protection of the EU's two-ton regulatory umbrella. Is Europe 
        creating her own quagmire of rules, corporate taxes, tariffs, and information problems?

        The, er, representatives in Brussels seem more than a little detached from the democratic 
        process. To us, it is not clear exactly how these lawmakers are elected, and to what 
        extent they are accountable to citizens of member states. Further, how is the EU making 
        efforts to immunize itself from the corruptive effects of special interests? Is there a 
        viable constitutional rule of law in the works, or will Europe be run by benign technocrats?

        And while these functionaries may genuinely desire to make Europe a better place, 
        they seem to be laboring under the spell of what F. A. Hayek called the "fatal conceit," 
        that is, the notion that a good system can be planned by apparatchiks, philosopher 
        kings, or whatever bureaucratic elite you can cut from the finest marble of the Sorbonne.

Why so uncompetitive? Why so many unemployed?

Aside from the ramblings of writers like T. R. Reid who would have us believe that a single currency, generous aid to the developing world, and socialized medicine have made Europe a "superpower," we are getting a rather different image on these shores:

        Europeans want to eat their cake and have it too. We see very few signs that Europeans 
        are ready to unfix themselves from the teat of the welfare state. Thirty-five hour work-weeks, 
        lots of vacation time, generous entitlements, "free" healthcare, and a subsistence 
        underclass are a tremendous encumbrance to what could be a flourishing economy. 
        Are there any reforms in the works?

        Notwithstanding trade wars with the US, is Europe going to make a move away from 
        subsidies? Will Airbus be able to survive in the absence of tax-payer Euros any more 
        than Boeing will be able to continue after major military conflicts have dried up? Will 
        the EU continue to pour resources into protecting French wine, Spanish oranges 
        and Italian fish while developing-world agriculture suffers?

        Germany and France, the key players in unification, are muddling along with unemployment 
        rates of anywhere from 9 to 14 percent in many areas. Does this reflect a wider 
        systemic malaise that will soon be transferred to other EU countries?

        Idealists continue to speak of European "soft power," but deny that the EU will turn 
        to the "hard power" of planes, tanks and trained military personnel. Europe has 
        free-ridden on US military protection for more than fifty years. If, as she hopes, 
        the United States continues to pull its sphere of influence away from Europe, will she 
        grow her military strength to step into the breech left by the Yanks? And if so, how will 
        she afford it?"

Unified, but why so fractured?

While European countries are uniting, splinter groups and sub-cultures among their populations are fracturing them at the same time. Are there any plans to assimilate these isolated, often violent, populations? Is it too late? Was it ever even possible?:

        Many post-colonial North Africans of Paris's banlieu can be suspicious, insular, 
        and even hostile. Though they are happy to take welfare disbursements from Parisian 
        bureaucrats, they cluster in HUD-style housing on the perimeter of the city, speak 
        Arabic, and are primarily responsible for a per capita crime-rate higher than that of 
        New York. Will the EU take responsibility for France's post-colonial troubles?

        Similar things can be said about the even less-assimilated Islamists of Holland. 
        Here, a Dutch parliamentarian lives in hiding due to daily death threats; a film-maker 
        was murdered for his criticisms of closed, patriarchal Muslim culture; and street 
        clashes between groups are a frequent occurrence between the populations. Will 
        Holland's former toleration become Europe's future blight?

        Gypsies, or "the Roma," continue to wander around Europe in squalid 
        conditions -- mainly illiterate, stateless, and stealing as they go. Will these wanderers 
        become wards of the Superstate, or will they become individuals and citizens?

        Pakistani immigrants in the north of England -- unlike their Indian counterparts -- engage 
        in serious ethnic clashes with blue-collar whites, and cling fiercely to their Islamic 
        cloisters. Is the EU prepared to deal with Britain's internal strife? Are these and others 
        the terrorist hotbeds of the future?

Less navel-gazing, more conversation

The US still has plenty of its own problems, many of which we've heard about from an ever-present chorus of European critics: our costly foreign entanglements are making us less competitive in the global economy and have raised the hackles of our allies; we are both culturally provincial and culturally imperialist; we have too much personal debt and way too many of our people are in prison. We realize that our own regulatory morass and corporate taxation scheme is still an impediment to growth and dynamic market solutions. Our entitlement system, too, takes up far too much of GDP (around 10 percent) and interferes with the expansion of a "civil society" sector. Problems of special interest and soft corruption are pretty thoroughly entrenched, as well. And our budget deficit is huge.

On the positive side, while the US has a long way to go, crime rate has reached record lows around most of the country. The nation-wide unemployment rate is currently at 5.2 percent. And in many respects, we too are reforming -- in ways that are striking at the root. Like welfare in the 1990s, we are turning our sights to Social Security, a system that many believe is on a path to implosion. There have been whispers of an Administration-lead change in the tax code to flat tax or even a consumption tax. There is also a plan, however tentative, to reduce the national deficit.

But far from tit-for-tat accusations and international thumb-wrestling, it's time for the US and Europe to get back to the candid conversations that will help us all to improve. Far from desiring two distinct and insulated continents, we should be striving to find ways to make more connections, tear down cultural and trade barriers, and discover the best our common values have to offer... So, when President Bush makes his tour of Europe in the next week, let's not quibble -- let's talk. Our destinies depend on it.

Max Borders has lived in Germany, France, and Great Britain -- but now writes in the Washington, DC area.


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