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The European Delusion

by Bruce S. Thornton
September 20, 2011

The worldwide Great Recession that began in 2008 has taken much of the bloom off the European Union rose. These days, the enthusiastic pronouncements of recent years when the European Union was touted as a “bold new experiment in living,” one “leading the way into a new era,” sound premature if not delusional.

Greece’s near-default on its sovereign debt, the humiliating multibillion-dollar International Monetary Fund contribution to the European Union’s near-trillion-dollar bailout fund, and the looming similar economic crises threatening other EU states like Ireland, Spain, and Portugal have laid bare the contradictions long underlying the EU economic project of greater integration through a common currency and centralized policies, putting at risk its very existence. This economic failure complements the European Union’s unmet geopolitical ambitions. Given its limited military capabilities, the European Union has been unable to project global power and fulfill its promise to be an important “pole” in the “multipolar” world that was presumably created by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet despite these failures of the EU project—greater prosperity, peace, and international influence through increased economic and political unification—many liberals in America continue to pursue policies, both domestic and foreign, that are moving the United States closer to the EU paradigm. Indeed, many on the Left approve of the European model as something to emulate. Partly, this reflects the place Europe has traditionally held in the imagination of some Americans. Like the Yankee ingénues in a Henry James novel, they have admired the Old World of sophistication, culture, and civilization that contrasts with the New World of crude, go-getting, frontier brashness. But these days, this admiration more fundamentally reflects the belief that Europe provides a more humane and sophisticated set of social and political values.

The “Europeanization” of America has intensified under the Obama Administration. Actions like the quasi-nationalization of General Motors and the increased government regulation of the finance industry have intensified state control of the economy. Likewise, the recently passed health care legislation moves the country closer to the EU social welfare model in which the state attempts not just to insulate its citizens from the tragic contingencies of existence, but also to provide them with leisure, comfort, and protection against the consequences of their own bad choices.

In foreign policy as well, President Obama has embraced the EU “postmodern” view of interstate relations, which is distrustful of military force and looks instead to diplomacy, multilateralism, and transnational institutions to create global order. Barack Obama explicitly campaigned on the need “to reinvigorate American diplomacy,” as he put it in a Foreign Affairs article, and “to rebuild the alliances, partnerships, and institutions necessary to confront common threats and enhance common security.” Hence, as President, he has apologized abroad for the alleged militarist and unilateralist sins committed by his “cowboy” predecessor and has extended his hand repeatedly—and so far fruitlessly—to the mullahs in Iran in order to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons.

In this article, I hope to dispel the illusions of those who have fallen for the European temptation by highlighting the failure of the EU project. The EU project suffers from several problems: economic sclerosis, unaffordable entitlements, demographic collapse, and a large unassimilated Muslim population. In addition, the EU reliance on “soft power” on the international stage has been a failure.


The Failure of the “EUtopian” Project

Economic Sclerosis. The greater integration of the 27 EU member states’ economies, most visibly evident in the common currency used by the 17 states of the eurozone, has not overcome the impediments to economic growth and development caused by dirigiste government policies.

Though still collectively an economic powerhouse, Europe’s economies for the past two decades have been troubled by low rates of growth, chronic unemployment, and economic sclerosis compared to the U.S. economy. Whether the issue is per capita gross domestic product, productivity, high tax burdens, percentage of working-age citizens employed, research and development, worker-friendly requirements for wages and benefits, impediments to entrepreneurs, early generous retirement, or regulations concerning hiring and firing, EU policies impede economic growth and vitality and leave Europe less competitive and resilient than the more dynamic economies of the United States and China.

It is no surprise that the EU states most in economic danger—Greece, Portugal, and Spain—are ranked at the bottom of the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” survey of 27 Western economies. (The United States ranks second.) The comparative impact of the current global recession illustrates this disparity: While the eurozone GDP declined 4.2 percent in 2009, U.S. GDP went down 2.6 percent. Nor has the European Union’s economic recovery kept pace with that of the United States: GDP in the European Union increased 1.8 percent in 2010, while GDP in the United States increased 2.9 percent.

Unaffordable Entitlements. An important factor in retarding the EU economies is the expensive social welfare entitlements enjoyed by Europeans. While the U.S. federal and state governments spend roughly 18 percent of GDP on pensions, welfare, and health care costs, the European Union spends nearly 29 percent. The list of entitlements seems endless: unemployment benefits, welfare payments, pensions, paid maternity leaves, child-care subsidies, free university education, expansive sick leave, restricted working hours, generous paid vacation and holiday leave, and government-provided health care. As EU champion T. R. Reid puts it, falling into the EU government “safety net” is “like falling into a large, soft bed with a down comforter for protection against the cold and a matron standing by with a warm cup of tea to soothe discomfort.”

As desirable as these boons may be, they all cost money and depend on an expanding economy that creates jobs and increases tax revenues. As we currently see in Greece, a sluggish economy has the opposite effect, constricting the funds available for welfare spending. At the same time, social spending continues to increase as the demand for more entitlements grows and an aging, longer-living population stresses budgets further. Given that by 2050 the EU economies will have a mere two workers for every retiree, the EU social welfare paradise is heading for bankruptcy.

Demographic Collapse. These economic woes are worsened by the precipitous demographic decline affecting the EU nations. For a people to maintain their population, they need a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. The European Union currently has a fertility rate of 1.5. If these rates continue, by 2050, the European Union will have 7 million fewer people, a loss similar to the effects of plagues, wars, and famines. The impact on the economy will be devastating, as the working-age population will fall by 48 million people while the number of retirees will rise by 58 million. As economist Guillermo de la Dehesa writes:

[T]his demographic shift could be very severe for the EU’s future growth. … A graying population means a less active population, less entrepreneurship, less innovation, higher and probably unsustainable public expenditures, all of which will result in lower growth.

The most important resource for modern free-market economies is the people who think up new products and services, creating jobs for other people, and generating tax revenues. Broader malign effects on the wider culture attend this demographic decline, as childless people find it easier to care more about their own private carpe diem pleasures and dolce vita lifestyle than they care about the larger society and the future vitality of its ideals and principles. They also become less willing to spend the money and make the sacrifices necessary to defend their countries and their values from attack.

EUrabia. This last concern is particularly troublesome in terms of the next problem afflicting the EU paradigm: Muslim immigration. At least 20 million Muslim immigrants live in Europe. At first, these immigrants came as workers, their numbers swelling due to “family reunification programs” and lax “asylum” policies. Once arrived, they have been left unassimilated into the cultures of their host countries and shut out of the job market because of restrictive employment regulations. At the same time, they have been able to enjoy lavish social welfare entitlements: The four Muslims who perpetrated the London bombings in 2005 had received half a million pounds of social welfare money.

Worse yet, fashionable multicultural fantasies about the non-Western “Other” victimized by past European sins such as colonialism and imperialism have left many Europeans incapable of demanding fidelity to Western political ideals and social mores, all the while eager to appease and enable Muslim immigrant violence and other social pathologies even at the expense of cherished Western values such as free speech or women’s rights.

Hence the creation of the new thought crime “Islamophobia,” used to silence anyone who criticizes Islam. The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was charged with “defaming Islam” in her two books defending Western values against Islamic intolerance, and Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders was put on trial for his outspoken defense of Western values and criticisms of Islam’s theologically justified violence in his short film Fitna.

Equally effective at enforcing appeasement has been the fear of Muslim violence. After the 2006 global Muslim riots and killings over some cartoons of Mohammed published by a Danish newspaper, rather than defend the core value of free speech, the European Union instead proposed a “media code” to regulate speech about religion. EU Justice Minister Franco Frattini assured the Muslim world that “we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression” and that “we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right,” frankly admitting that fear of violent “consequences” would lead to restrictions on free speech.

The predictable result of this combination of appeasement and neglect has been the creation of a sullen, alienated population overrepresented in criminal behavior, prison populations, and welfare rolls. These underemployed and unassimilated Muslims thus become vulnerable to the Islamist doctrine that a return to the purity of the faith and the practice of jihad against the infidel will heal their alienation.

Given that they are confident in the right­eousness and superiority of their faith, and moreover are reproducing at a higher rate than their dwindling and aging European hosts, the increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants presage serious social and political problems, from increased terrorist attacks like the London and Madrid bombings to growing immigrant enclaves such as the banlieues (suburbs) ringing Paris that exclude European political and social ideals such as democracy, human rights, and secularism and replace them with Islamic Sharia law. Whether Europe responds to these challenges with further appeasement and erosion of core political values or with a xenophobic or even neo-fascist backlash, the problem is unlikely to be solved without profound social and political dislocations.

The Failure of Soft Power and Internationalism. Finally, the EU vision of relying on soft power rather than military force to defuse conflict and create global order, peace, and prosperity has failed at the grandiose ambition that in a “multipolar” world, “one of these essential poles will be Europe,” as French President Jacques Chirac put it in 1995. Oxford University’s Kalypso Nicolaides defines this “postmodern” foreign policy as one that requires nations to surrender some of their sovereignty to international organizations that presumably enforce common values and serve common interests. This “security community” will rely on “civilian forms of influence and action” over military force and will attempt to create “tolerance between states” and “move beyond the relationships of dominance and exploitation with the rest of the world.”

This ideal assumes that such global “norms” even exist—a proposition that is hard to square with the multiplicity of cultural goods evident across the globe. Yet just on the basis of past performance, the international laws and covenants, institutions like the various “world courts,” and transnational organizations like the European Union itself or the United Nations, all of which embody this utopian goal, have done little to prevent the slaughter of millions of people in civil wars, interstate conflicts, genocide, and ethnic cleansing in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Somalia, Lebanon, Darfur, Congo, or Rwanda, to name just a few.

The fact remains that creating global order and stopping violators of the peace requires the ability to project lethal military power. Yet Europe’s failure in the 1990s to stop the genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacres, and torture next door in the Balkans, and the humiliation of relying on the military power of the United States to do so, exposed the truth that, even collectively, the EU nations are “military pygmies,” as one-time NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson put it. Thus, for all their vaunted soft power, the Europeans are limited in their geopolitical reach.

Moreover, this pacifism disguised as a preference for soft power is possible only because the security of the EU nations is guaranteed by the United States, which spends more on defense than the rest of the world put together. This U.S. security umbrella, by freeing European nations from spending on their own militaries, likewise makes more affordable the European Union’s generous social welfare entitlements, as well as maintaining the global order necessary for the functioning of a globalized economy.

For example, given that 17 percent of Europe’s oil is imported from the Middle East, most of it through the Strait of Hormuz, the EU economies depend on U.S. military power in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to keep the oil flowing. As Robert Kagan has written, a globalized economy of “saloon keepers” needs a “sheriff” to “enforce some peace and justice in what Americans see as a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred or destroyed, often through the muzzle of a gun.”

Merely on practical grounds, then, the EU project has so far not succeeded in achieving its aims and thus is a dubious model for the United States. Yet all political policy reflects a philosophical vision, a set of notions about human nature, human motivation, and the human good. At this level as well, many of the ideas underlying the EU vision are contrary to those that animated the American Founding.


The EU’s Progressive Principles

The philosophical ideas of the European Union reflect the continental Enlightenment notion that a universal, essentially rational human nature is progressing away from the irrational superstitions and traditions such as religion that in the past defined and disordered human life and society. This progress has been spurred by the growth of knowledge which has created the “human sciences” such as economics, psychology, and sociology. These “sciences” in turn generate techniques for reorganizing and improving social, political, and economic institutions in order to create peace, equality, and justice and to liberate people from traditional superstitions so that they can recognize and act upon their own best interests and achieve happiness.

This vision creates what French political philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics”—top-down government by technical elites who craft policies that intervene in society and the economy in order to mitigate the harsh inequalities of free-market capitalism through government regulations and welfare entitlements. The goal will be to lessen and eventually eliminate the irrational nationalist or religious prejudices and intolerance that foment social disorder and injustice. Hence the intrusive and extensive economic regulations of the European Union; the generous social welfare benefits now redefined as “rights” by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights; the legally codified and enforced demands for tolerance, respect, and inclusion; and the animus against Christianity notoriously evident in the refusal to acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots in the EU Constitution.

These radical Enlightenment ideals underlying the European Union’s domestic policies inform its foreign affairs behavior as well. Given the universal progress from irrational restraints on people to rational techniques for managing and improving human life, there is a global “harmony of interests” because all peoples desire the same ends as Westerners: peace, prosperity, and political freedom. Once educated to these true interests, all peoples will realize that these goods can best be obtained not by force and the pursuit of parochial nationalist interests, but by networks of interstate agreements that adjudicate disputes rationally and subject the behavior of nations to clearly defined international rules and protocols enforced by transnational organizations, allowing peace and prosperity to flourish. Then war will give way to diplomacy: rational discussion, negotiation, respect and tolerance for the other side’s demands, and a mutual desire to adjudicate grievances without the destruction and suffering that attend the use of force—what the Europeans call “soft power.”

Just taken on their own terms, these assumptions about human nature and progress are dubious at best and hard to support by the empirical evidence of history. Despite the astonishing explosion of scientific knowledge over the past two centuries, no laws governing human social, political, and economic behavior akin to the laws of physics or mathematics that can justify the intrusive reorganization of society by elites wielding techniques reflecting those laws have been discovered. Every attempt to do so over the past two centuries has ended in bloody failure and tyranny, for such meddling based on abstract theories founders on the sheer complexity and quirky unpredictability of human nature and its irrational passions and stubborn willfulness.


America’s Founding Principles

All of these utopian ideals are different from those upon which the American order was founded. Of course, the Founders believed in the possibility of political progress, believing, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, that “societies of men are really capable … of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” And they understood that such progress might require jettisoning some of the past. Hence, they did not suffer “a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience,” as Madison put it.

Yet these constructive efforts at improvement were based on the given of a human nature permanently subject to destructive passions and selfish interests. Throughout the Federalist, whether the topic is the need for a strong union, the preference for a republic rather than a direct democracy, or the separation of powers, the authors repeatedly emphasize the irrational wellsprings of human behavior.

For example, Hamilton reminds us in Federalist No. 6 that “men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious.” In Federalist No. 10, Madison’s famous discussion of factions—groups adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the common good—likewise reflects a sober view of human nature and the power of “opinions” formed by a “fallible” reason and influenced by “passions”: “The latent causes of faction,” Madison summarizes, “are thus sown in the nature of man.” Since human nature cannot be improved beyond such motives that create faction, “relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.” This control can be achieved, then, not by some scheme to change human nature and engineer a new man, but by a well-constructed republican government in which power is separated among the different branches of government.

Indeed, government itself is necessary precisely because, as Hamilton puts it in Federalist No. 15, “the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” But it is Madison who provided in Federalist No. 51 the most famous expression of this fundamental truth: “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”


Preserving American Exceptionalism

The American ideals of political freedom and autonomy, citizen independence and self-reliance, limited government, religion, patriotism, and nationalist autonomy backed up by vigorous military power comprise American exceptionalism. These ideals that define our nation would have to be weakened or discarded if America were to follow the EU road to utopia.

Regrettably, we have already been travelling down that road for decades. By the early 20th century, the rise of Progressivism had established in the public discourse the doctrine of social, economic, and political change controlled and directed by technical elites. This class, backed by government power, would work to improve and perfect life and solve problems based on what Bradley C. S. Watson describes as a “faith in intelligence and expertise translated into support for a vast state mechanism that would be confidently dedicated to ensuring growth—by means of progressive education, the administrative state, and redistribution of capital.”

The expansion of the federal government that commenced under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, was furthered by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and has intensified under Barack Obama is continuing this process. The result is increased entitlement spending and government intrusion into the economy, education, and social life. Consequently, the United States is now facing many of the same fiscal problems that afflict Europe, with entitlement spending projected to double by 2050 and public debt slated to rise to 180 percent of GDP by 2035. And let us not forget the erosion of traditional independence and self-reliance, the constriction of freedoms, and the infantilizing of Americans that follow the greater intrusion of government power into daily life and business.


Mr. Thornton is a National Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of
Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Books, 2007), from which this essay is adapted. A longer version of this essay is also available at www.heritage.org/research/reports/2011/03/america-the-delusional-overcoming-our-european-temptation.


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