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The Future of Europe
Peter Wicks   Aug 15, 2011   Ethical Technology  

Can Europe, whose motto is “unity in diversity,” help to navigate humanity through the upcoming decades like a clear-eyed Renaissance astronomer? Or will it simply sink, squabbling and sniveling, into irrelevancy?

Birthplace of The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and erstwhile colonial masters of most of the world, Europe has for the past decades been gradually and fitfully rebuilding itself after the fiasco of 1914-1945. Until 1989 it was a divided continent, both politically and economically, and the recent break-up of Yugoslavia left a gaping wound of ethnic strife.

These wounds are now beginning to heal. With its European Union of 27 nation states comprising a territory stretching from the Atlantic to as far East as Finland, Estonia, Romania, and Greece, and with a commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law that was absent in many European countries until the last decades of the 20th century, it can be argued that Europe now has the institutions and political systems to allow it to take a leading place in the new multi-polar world that is emerging.

And yet Europe, that economic giant and military dwarf, still seems to be at the mercy of larger powers. As it seeks to recover its identity while simultaneously remaining an inspiration to other nations—via its rich history, culture, political heritage, and regulatory innovation—there are threats on the European horizon.

Can Europe, whose motto is “unity in diversity,” help to navigate humanity through the upcoming decades like a clear-eyed Renaissance astronomer? Or will it simply sink, squabbling and sniveling, into irrelevancy?

This article explores some of the issues and challenges facing Europe today: its strengths, its weaknesses, and the threats and opportunities it faces.


The European Social Model

From its own perspective, one of Europe’s key strengths is its so-called “social model.” Americans still, decades after the McCarthy era, tend to see socialism as a synonym for Pure Evil, but in Europe democratic socialism is well integrated into the political mainstream.

While the US commitment to the free market is often more rhetoric than reality, Europe has successfully implemented socialist values, with “free at the point of use” healthcare, generous unemployment benefits, high protection against dismissal, nationalized industries, and heavily subsidised infrastructure and services—all paid for by some of the highest taxes and budget deficits in the world. Recently this social model has come under severe strain, however, as Europe has struggled to remain competitive in the face of emerging low-wage economies.

Green Europe

A quick glance at a population map reveals Europe (along with the Indian subcontinent and Eastern Asia) to be one of the main areas of high population density in the world. Add to that its relative poverty in natural resources, its role as inventor of the Industrial Revolution, and its wealth, and it is hardly surprising that Europeans are in the vanguard of environmental awareness.

Europeans care about their planet, and they want others to care about it too. They also want their competitors in other regions to respect the same environmental standards that they do—although they also appreciate the cheap imports that a lack of environmental standards in those countries facilitates.

In Europe, as elsewhere, political focus on environmental issues has waned recently as Europeans have become more concerned about jobs, growth, and security. Environmental awareness is nevertheless deeply ingrained in the mainstream psyche, and given the gravity and complexity of environmental challenges, this is unlikely to change any time soon.

Feminist Stronghold

“Europa” was a mythic princess abducted by Zeus and taken to Crete, cradle of the matriarchal Minoans—fitting, at last, that this nomenclature rests on the globe’s most feminist continent. Today 7 of the top 10 nations in “women’s equality” (according to the Global Gender Gap Index) are nestled here, and 25 of the most equitable 30. Today women govern in numerous European nations; XX heads-of-state preside in Germany, San Marino, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia, Iceland, and Finland. Plus, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK, and Christine Lagarde was recently chosen to be the first female head of the IMF.

Europe will continue to lead the world in women’s rights. Today, the media-savvy, often topless, radical activist group FEMEN from Kiev, in the Ukraine, has 30,000 online supporters, and is exporting its nude-enhanced protests to Warsaw, Zurich, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Rio de Janeiro. Femen started with protests against prostitution and sex tourism, but is now branching out into additional women’s rights issues.

Gay Equality

Europe has internationally led the way in accepting homosexuality into the mainstream. Today, same sex marriage is legal in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal, and civil unions are recognized in Finland, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic.  Gays and lesbians are also in political leadership positions: Johanna Sigurdardottir is Prime Minister of Iceland, Bertrand Delanoe is mayor of Paris, Klaus Wowereit is mayor of Berlin, and Ole von Beust is mayor of Hamburg.

The primary laggard in this category is Italy, which does not recognize civil unions, due partially to the Catholic Church’s success at blocking legislation. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi also opposes gay rights. Recently, the Italian Parliament narrowly voted down a bill that would have protected LGBT people from hate crimes and discrimination. The future? Gay rights eventually will succeed in Italy, further tarnishing the Papacy’s influence.

Diversity in Unity: Regulatory and institutional innovation

One of the less obvious but arguably most significant contributions of contemporary Europe to global affairs is its regulatory and institutional innovation.

Precisely because Europeans didn’t want to simply merge into a unified super-state, they have had to create innovative supranational structures that go beyond mere intergovernmental co-operation but are less cohesive than in a national state. The result is a patchwork of treaties and legal structures.

An example of this is the concept of the “directive,” where EU institutions set legally binding general principles that then are transposed into law by the national governments—and enforced if necessary by the European Court of Justice, which has the power to fine countries for non-compliance. Directives typically are voted on by both the Council (comprising ministers from each Member State) and the directly-elected European Parliament. The resulting rules—not least in the environmental field—are frequently adapted and adopted as standards by other countries and regions.

One danger for Europe is that public acceptance of this structure of Byzantine complexity seems to hang by a thread. But here too, the current financial crisis may hold the key. The current arrangements are the result of tortuous peacetime negotiations in which national interests are defended to a sometimes absurd degree. Public interest in such matters is close to zero. This may have to change as Europe steers its way through choppy waters.


Theme park Europe, or tech industry competitor?

Europe receives 50% of all tourism in the world, with France leading the way at 73 million visitors per annum. Spain and Italy are also top attractions, and Greece and Portugal have seen these stats rise sharply in recent years. Almost 10 million Europeans are employed in the tourist industry.

As a “lifestyle showcase” Europe has a lot to offer, and this is something Europeans genuinely can be proud of. To make it work, they need to continue rethinking the relationship between old and new, and prove that past richness can be a springboard for future success.

Ultimately, however, Europeans do not want their continent turned into a theme park. Europe seeks to compete with East Asia and the US in key emerging technologies, and recent actions indicate its willingness to invest in research and innovation. Last month, the EU provided 488 million euros for nanotechnology research, and funding for the European Research Council, which finances “frontier” research, will rise by 23 per cent to €1.6 billion. Politicians are responding to the pleas of scientists and awarding them with grants to pursue activities that can keep the continent on pace with its rivals.

As a result, Europe leads the world in areas such as microconductors and green technology. Specific areas targeted for further support include micro/nanotechnology, industrial biotechnology, advanced materials (batteries, photovoltaics, gas turbines, solid state lighting) advanced manufacturing (semiconductors), consumer electronics devices, and marine biotech. In addition to the EU funding itself, Member States also have agreed to allocate significant sums to these areas as part of the EU’s “Europe 2020” strategy.

The Military Dwarf

By the end of World War II, Europe’s days as a military giant were well and truly over. The Suez fiasco of the 1950s was just the chickens coming home to roost.

One of the reasons for Europe’s military weakness is its sheer disunity. No individual European country has the means or the incentive to come close to competing militarily with the US. It would be different if the myriad nations just merged into a European super-state. But current evidence seems to suggest that what really Europeans want is to keep their national flags, their own national TV programmes in their own national languages, and their own national ways of doing things.

Again, however, peering behind the (media-distorted) veil, one gets a different impression. The continued division of Europe into national fiefdoms is looking increasingly outdated. It may be that the only way to pull through the current financial crisis is to integrate, and this may provide the political will that has previously been missing. Waiting in the wings is a new generation of ‘netizens’ for whom national boundaries and distinctions appear increasingly irrelevant.

So, will this new, integrated Europe have the means and the willpower to beef up its defense budget and substantially upgrade its military capacity? This seems unlikely. Europe likely will continue to see itself primarily as a peaceful player, relying on its “soft power” and leading the way to a world in which arms (hopefully) will become increasingly irrelevant as an effective instrument of influence.

The Muslim Dilemma

One of the tectonic forces putting Europe’s social model and values under strain is its sizeable and fast-breeding Muslim immigrant population, combined with the global rise in Wahhabist extremism. Among the dilemmas this creates for Europeans are, first, how to position themselves with regard to their own unresolved secular/religious cleavages, and, second, how to continue to see themselves as tolerant and freedom-loving in the face of intolerance and terrorism. Far-right parties haven’t had it so good since the 1930s.

At the same time, the dilemmas and dangers should not blind us to the much more positive forces at work. Look beyond the scare stories and you will see an alternate narrative of integration and progress. Extremist Muslim clerics might complain about “Western decadence,” while native European xenophobes complain that the immigrants are “stealing our jobs,” but arguably these are just the neurotic reactions that are to be expected as traditional values are replaced by modern, secular, technology-enabled lifestyles.

It also needs to be emphasised that many of the social strains in Europe—spectacularly and unexpectedly exposed in the recent English riots—have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, or religion in general. But taken together they provide an explosive mixture that must not be underestimated. Responsibility and restraint on all sides will be necessary in order to ensure that the positive forces prevail.

Financial Crisis!

While this article was being prepared, US government debt, traditionally the safest of safe havens, was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s. This came after a week of carnage in the stock market, fueled to a large extent by Europe’s own solvency crisis, and exposed a lack of faith in today’s political elites—and the institutional mechanisms agreed to by their predecessors—to steer the way to safety.

In Europe, the financial problems stem in part from the decision taken in the 1990s to introduce a monetary union (common currency) without the political and economic integration that is arguably required to make it work. Unlike the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank has a mandate that focuses entirely on the strength of the euro and controlling inflation, which limits its flexibility to intervene effectively to shore up growth where necessary.

In the meantime, countries (such as Germany) with relatively robust economies and others who have gone through the pain of austerity measures are more than reluctant to bail out southern countries that they see as having taken a free ride. But it is difficult to see how Europe can avoid being the epicenter of a new financial crisis, and/or avoid years or even decades of crippling recession, unless Europeans recognize their essential interdependence and discover a sense of solidarity.

It is sometimes said that Europe will find a solution because it must. This should not be taken for granted, however. When World War I broke out in 1914, most people thought it would last only a few weeks because it was obviously in no one’s interest for it to last longer. It did not end quickly, of course and this is a salutary lesson from history.

Just because something is in no one’s interests doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It is in no one’s interest for Europe to descend into financial and economic ruin because countries can’t agree on the fiscal and economic integration required to make its single currency work. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Will Europe pull through?

Europe has much to be proud of: an egalitarian social model, high environmental awareness, well developed gender equality, and an institutional structure that, while somewhat opaque, is unique in the world in its effectiveness at transcending entrenched national divisions. These are genuine strengths that potentially could help a unified Europe to reassert its place in the world.

At the same time, the strains and challenges are real and serious and could derail the entire project. Europe certainly can pull through the current crisis, but this will take courage and responsibility, not only from political leaders but also from opinion leaders in the media and elsewhere, both within and outside of Europe.

Acknowledgement and Disclaimer

I want to extent my warm gratitude to Hank Pellissier for coming up with the original idea to write this article on Europe and for assisting with some of the text. The views expressed here are entirely my own responsibility, however, and in particular should not in any way be taken as reflecting those of my employer (the European Commission).

Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.


Great article Peter.

As you say, “Europe has much to be proud of: an egalitarian social model, high environmental awareness, well developed gender equality…”, and much more. As a European, I am really proud of these achievements.

I am less optimist about “an institutional structure that, while somewhat opaque, is unique in the world in its effectiveness at transcending entrenched national divisions.

You say: “opaque.”

I would rather say: “obsolete, chaotic, byzantine, expensive, wasteful, useless, and corrupted to the bones.”  Not because we Euros are stupid, but because we are smart enough to create structures too complex to be transparently analysed but optimised for our deeply entrenched corruption habits. Europe is a giant machine to take cash out of citizens’ pockets and give it back to its, um, “real owners.”

Like you, I have been working for many years in the system, and believe me I have seen enough.

As we have discussed in other threads, I prefer another model for Europe: much more power to local autonomies, much less power to nation states, and no power to Brussels. If I were called to vote in a national referendum on whether to stay in the EU or leave it, I would have no doubts.

En passant: like everyone, I wonder how evidently smart politicians and civil servants make evidently stupid decisions when it comes to the social good that they should foster.

My favorite analysis technique is simple, a bit of Marx and a bit of Sherlock Holmes:

I’m an European and I do like the article. I wonder if Europe is better suited to contribute and accept the singularity (in whatever form) then other nations/parts of the world?

Anyone has any ideas on this?

@DutchCon That’s indeed an interesting question! Europe has arguably gone further down the secular path than (most) other parts of the world, and this could potentially give us above all the psychological flexibility to shape and embrace futures that are very different from the past or present. But I can think of several arguments against this view as well.

@Giulio Thanks for the compliment! As we’ve discussed on other threads, I don’t have quite such a negative view of bureaucracy, and honestly I’m not saying that merely out of professional loyalty. Of course nobody (in their right mind) would disagree that there is corruption, waste, and indeed some obsolescence in the structures we’ve created and how they work (or don’t) in practice. The question is whether your small/decentralised government model really works better. Do we have concrete examples of this?

Indeed, one of the arguments against DutchCon’s hypothesis that springs to mind is that national barriers and resulting lack of economies of scale in Europe tend to retard progress. Wouldn’t this be likely to get worse in the absence of the EU, even in the (difficult to imagine?) event that it could be unravelled in a relatively orderly way (i.e. without a great deal of suffering and possibly violence)?

Yes, the many (relatively small) national units in Europe could be a disadvantage for reaching a Singularity.
On the other hand, it gives a lot of diversity. There is in Europe a rich tapestry of different cultural, economical, technological, religious identities, bound by some common laws, (some level of) properity and development. This could be an advantage. No economics of scale, but on the other hand multiple tracks to Singularity. If developments in one or more countries is slow because of e.g. local law, culture, religion, there will be other countries where that kind of research or development will take place.
Not one big state that hinders the road to Singularity (like for example what happened to stem cell research in the USA, or the state censorship of the internet in China) but many different paths.

So what do you need most for Singularity? Economics of scale, or diversity?




Good point. I guess overall view is that future positive developments, whether “singularity-type” or other, will most likely come interactions between different parts of the world and not only one. So may be a better question is what are the specific strengths where Europe can contribute. Also, what distinct values do Europeans bring to the issue of technology and what kind of future we want?

@Peter re “The question is whether your small/decentralised government model really works better. Do we have concrete examples of this? “

The Swiss/US model (federation of autonomies with some resources pooled for central management of global issues) works. You will answer that this is what the EU wants to be, and I don’t entirely disagree. I am more concerned with the actual implementation, which in the case of the EU is a scam.

Europe is that place where there are long and byzantine regulations about the curvature of bananas (not a joke, but a fact). And of course the buddies of the politicians and civil servants responsible for this idiocy have companies that receive fat EU grants to measure the curvature of bananas, write long unread reports on the catastrophic sociological effects of non compliant bananas etc. All with my money and yours, and while there are some real problems to address.

Continued: of course, this is just human nature. We are smart, and we quickly find all possible ways to take advantage of any system for personal benefit. There is not much to do about this.

But this is why I see fragmentation, decentralisation and local autonomy as a solution. Corruption is just in the nature of power, and fragmentation can minimise the damages.

Hi Giulio, without (for obvious reasons) wishing to get into a detailed discussion about EU regulation, I do agree about human nature. But a(nother) question: if the EU is “supposed” to work roughly on the Swiss/US lines but fails far more miserably than in those cases, as you seem to suggest, why is this? In many important respects the EU is already (or rather still) more fragmented than either the Swiss or US, and in particular key instruments of state such as policing, armies, fiscal policy and the like remain in national hands. So why isn’t fragmentation working to the EU’s advantage here?

Re “why isn’t fragmentation working to the EU’s advantage here?”

Because the powers that be (the greedy sharks in both the private and the public sector, and their servants) make more money by keeping things the way they are.

How else could you become rich (and pay back your masters) by pretending to measure the curvature of bananas?

Giulio on the bananas issue I think you’re making far too much out of a technical issue that was blown way out of proportion at the time by partly Murdoch-controlled British tabloids, and we know how objective they are. Actually I think the wiki article you quoted is quite reasonable and balanced on the subject.

But my main point is essentially a logical one:
1. EU is, at least in some important respects, more fragmented than either US or Switzerland;
2. You seem to be claiming that the EU is far more corrupt than US/Switzerland
3. Doesn’t this undermine your claim that fragmentation should reduce corruption?

The “powers that be” argument is universal: no reason why this should be more the case in Europe than anywhere else. I don’t know so much about Switzerland, but aren’t pork-barrel politics and policy capture more generally seem to be just as much of an issue in the US as in Europe, if not more so?

My own view on this is that it’s not a simple matter of fragmentation vs centralisation. The issue is what you centralise, and what you leave to more local / citizen-based forms of governance. And of course values and cultural habits are essential: there is a lot of truth in the saying that people get the governments they deserve.

Peter, I am using the bananas issue as a well-known example of waste-by-design. I have seen many real cases, and so have you.

Of course fragmentation does not reduce corruption, but I think it does minimise its effects. A shark can eat less little fish in a small pond, and the little fish can always try to escape to another small pond with no sharks.

Giulio we’re getting a bit off the more general topic of the article, but it’s an interesting discussion. I guess my next question is: are we talking about some kind of “controlled” fragmentation, in which case who oversees it? Or are we talking about some kind of spontaneous fissioning of national and supranational structures (such as the EU), and how do we encourage this? The latter seems to me to be all too reminiscent of 19th century anarchism, and while there are elements of this kind of thinking that I sympathise with, I’m a long way from being convinced that it can lead to anywhere good. Certainly the examples you cited (US/Switzerland) are NOT examples of this.

Of course it’s entirely legitimate to rail against wastage and corruption. Indeed there are plenty of targets to go for, although again I don’t intend to enter into discussion on specifics here. But doesn’t history suggest that there needs to be some kind of superstructure overseeing it all, much as we have the UN (with all its flaws) and other structures at global level? If we focus exclusively on wastage and corruption are we not in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater and ignoring the more positive aspects? That is in any case my view…

Re “who oversees it?”

WE. US. The citizens. The people. Bypassing obsolete structures designed to protect entrenched financial and political interests. Making them de-facto redundant and replacing them with a real direct democracy built by-the-people for-the-people, against nation states and financial empires. Like the Internet is obsoleting the printed press.

Of course, this cannot be done in one day, or in one decade, and “they” will find ways to take advantage of alternative governance systems as well. There is no Utopia with capital U, but there can be improvements and small utopias with lower case u, and I believe this is one.

I don’t agree that corruption is soul mate of power. Give an opportunity, I’ll explain you each time why corruption was rooted in some personal story (westerners corrupted minds) and not by inherent mechanisms of the power-human relations.

And I have examples of high profile leaders who refused corruption.


If America is not much interested in h+, perhaps Canada and Oceania might be more interested? From visiting years ago, my impression of Canada is that it is similar to America but hasn’t quite decided its identity.
Thus Canada could possibly be more open to a future many Americans are skeptical of.
Some of you have connections in Canada or Oceania? they might turn out to be important ones.


Thanks for the well written and informative synopsis of the current state of the EU.

IMO the reason Europe in general is socially superior to the U.S. is that it is far more mature (aged) than we and having been around the prohibition block with its citizens for centuries is less concerned with their personal behavior (now that secularism has supplanted religious dogma with a few vestiges of past proscriptions here and there - Italy is a stronghold as you mentioned) and more concerned with group behavior at least in those areas that benefits society as a whole.

Contrarily the still largely religious (Puritanical) U.S. population is largely heterogenous (except in enclaves of ethnicity which are usually small areas within a state or city and the de facto 2 party system which gerrymanders for dominant homogeneity) so a consensus of what benefits the citizens as a whole is hard to achieve (especially when there is a binary system of political self-service in charge of the 3 branches of government as demonstrated in the current debt ceiling debacle or the universal healthcare fiasco).

The EU as a collection of countries is meta-heterogenous but each of the constituent countries is fairly homogenous and provincial with long histories of warring with each other and not integrating well with neighboring states. It is this provincialism and patrimonial historical and modern zeitgeist that engenders the xenophobic response to the waves of immigrants and the animus that is rampant in countries that have large foreign ethnic populations seemingly encroaching on the prevailing way of life.

The economic fall out is very well outlined in your Financial Crisis synopsis. One might think that a mutually beneficial trade bloc or cartel with a unified political structure would go a long way to stitch the disparate entities into a formidable unit which could effectively compete with the U.S., Pacific Rim, India and the rising Latin American blocs. So far this is not the case - the resistance to the Euro as common currency in many of the member nations is indicative of some of the chinks in the EU’s unity. The putative profligacy of Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain is causing a schism as well.

Will Europe Pull Through?

The provincialistic attitude is a barrier to effective unity in the EU and unless there can be a large enough degree of mutual integration into the monolithic history and culture of the nation states that comprise the EU, IMO the union will likely devolve into the tribalistic entities that they were previously. Until the EU solves its problem of integrating its disparate provincial nations into a common cause not to mention the Common Market which was the first EU. Europe as the continent with its previously provincial warring nations will survive but the EU may not.


@etienne I look forward to your examples: I agree it’s important to question this assumption that power always, inevitably, corrupts. While I’m inclined to agree with Giulio that there is a tendency in that direction, to some extent hard-wired in our DNA, the picture he presents there seems too black and white to me.

@Giulio an example of this (for me) too much “black and white” thinking is your apparent division of the world into “we” and “they”. Otherwise there’s a lot I like about your vision: “real direct democracy built by-the-people for-the-people”. That was always the dream, right? And it’s true that the nation state is a structure that has grown first out of the mechanisms of hegemony and oppression, and only then, and partially, out of our desire for democracy, human rights, and the common good. But that doesn’t make national and supranational structures obsolete: the question is whether we should be aiming to get rid of them and replace them with something better, or rather adapt them so they serve the latter purpose (democracy, human rights and the common good) more, and the former purpose (hegemony and oppression) less. Otherwise aren’t we just repeating the mistakes of Marx-Lenin?

@post-post One thing I didn’t touch on in my article was bioconservatism in Europe, but this is an important issue both in the context of “Europe as tech competitor” and in the context of Dutchcon’s question. I’ve mentioned secularism in Europe, but I think Europeans also tend to be quite cautious by nature, and this tends to be reflected in our attitudes to new technology. Conservatism in Europe, especially on the continent, is less associated with economic liberalism than in the US, and we certainly don’t have quite the same levels of neurosis on the religious right, but there IS a religious right, and a quite pervasive belief that new technologies, particularly of the weirder variety, are fraught with far more risks than opportunities. Not that I see this as necessarily a bad thing. The risks are real, as we all know,  and its therefore good to have some scepticism and opposition to act as a counterweight to enthusiasm and optimism. Europeans have seen all too well where messianic ideologies can lead, and this has built a healthy circumspection into our political dialogue.

Has not been discussion here of E. Europe- it isn’t a separate continent and has to be factored into all projections concerning W. Europe.
Pre-1989 there was a separation; today it is a new ball game.

“Europeans have seen all too well where messianic ideologies can lead”

In the last century you had Communism and National Socialism, but America in the 19th century had its Civil War, which left a greater mark than is realized. It was a complicated ideological war: western expansion (slave versus free territories & states), secession, Northern wage slavery vs. Southern black slavery. Reason the Civil War did not result in more casualties is the armaments of 1939- ‘45 didn’t exist. So don’t think America lacks in messianic ideologies; it might only be that :
“God looks out for fools, drunks, and the United States of America”
as Bismarck said; or it might be because America can spend funds on everything to smooth things over—up until now it has been so, anyway. We will find out this decade.

@Peter re “too much “black and white” thinking”

I am not running things, but just commenting an article. Here, I am saying that black is black is black and trying to make my point forcefully, even at the expense of balance, because I think it is an important point that needs to be made. Once this is clear, of course I see all the shades of grey, and of course I don’t plan to get rid of all the black in one step.

@Giulio Fair enough!

@post-post Good points. In a sense the two “world wars” were a kind of protracted European “civil war”. You’re right about the technological dimension that made those wars so much more destructive than the US civil war, but another factor is that they unseated Europe as the dominant hegemonic power. I have the feeling it’s been a more traumatic experience for Europe than the civil war has for the US, though I may be wrong about that.

You’re also right about West vs East in Europe: there’s much more that could be said about that. The iron curtain has fallen, but of course the dramatically different postwar experience of the “two Europes” has enduring consequences that are still being played out, and I didn’t really address that in my article.

“I have the feeling it’s been a more traumatic experience for Europe than the civil war has for the US, though I may be wrong about that.”

IMO the combination of the Civil War and Vietman/Watergate made things worse for America than Europe. The civil rights movement exacerbated it, but it was necessary then, otherwise we would be going through it now.
What saved Europe was it revamped after 1945; America hasn’t been renovated so directly since Reconstruction—1865 to, say, 1885.
It looks as if Canada and Oceania would be the most openminded to positive change because Europe and—especially—America are filled with venom from the past. I was in Germany 12/‘89 and was told ‘we’ve seen this all before’ (the end of the Cold War). Americans live in a Disneyland of sorts, they simply don’t want to know what is going on outside the walls of Disneyland until something like 9-11 happens. Then they realize Walt Disney isn’t in charge anymore. You would think famous writers would know what is going on; however I rang up a famous writer at a big magazine about his idyllic piece on travelling in the Midwest/West. He said he didn’t notice the negative things I told him about. Well of course not! you can’t see what is going from a hotel window or visiting friends..

Here is an example:
an average of twice a month, or more, a magazine such as this will run a wistful piece on the Wide Open Spaces of America; the authors see the beauty and ‘greatness’ (whatever ‘greatness’ is), but don’t see the mundaneness and depravity. In other words, they are not being patriotic nearly as much as they are being escapist. They see nature as being scenery, a backdrop; a Hollywood Western mock-up:

@Burt Sorry I didn’t notice your comment until now. On the whole I think I agree with your analysis, and I also think the risk of Europe devolving into tribalistic entities is a real one. Giulio would perhaps not view this as a “risk”, but I do, since as you correctly surmise such tendencies reflect not a controlled and benevolent fragmentation but rather a failure to transcend tribalistic divisions and unite around a common cause. Conversely, despite the evident wastage and corruption that exists, there is a lot about the EU that reflects the opposite: albeit limited and partial, but nonetheless real, efforts to transcend tribalistic divisions and unite around common values. Which is why I hope it DOES survive!

@post-post Don’t really have strong views on Canada/Oceania per se. Obviously the rise of China, India et al is a game-changer. Recently I read “The Geopolitics of Emotion” by Dominique Moisi and I think that speaks to some of your points. According to him Europe and the US are both characterised by fear; Asia by hope; the Arab world by anger and humiliation. Moisi freely admits that this is obviously a sweeping generalisation, and indeed it is, but as with Huntingdon’s “clash of civilisation” (to which it is a kind of response) it seems to have elements of truth. Perhaps the problem in the US and Europe is that we both have a sense (fear?) that our best days are (may be?) behind us?

In my view the ONLY answer is to find a sense of solidarity - integration around a common cause as Burt mentions - not only at the continental level but at the global level. I would even say this is an existential necessity for our civilisation (though probably not for our species: we’ll probably struggle on post-collapse in the kind of rat-like condition described so well by novelists like Margaret Atwood and Michel Houellebecq).

And you’re right: idyllic, escapist descriptions need at least to be tempered with cold, unflinching perceptions of reality as it is, in all its mundaneness and depravity. It’s fine to appreciate the beauty and “greatness” - it’s a legitimate and genuine, if subjective, aesthetic reaction to what they see - but if that is based on denial of reality then we only store up problems for later. What we mustn’t do though is to focus so much on the mundaneness and depravity we are describing that we end up being too depressed to rise above it.

Peter—Thank you for your highly informative article.  I would just like to underscore a risk factor that you did not fully address: unemployment among youth in the EU.  The EC documented an unemployment rate for youth (between ages 15 and 25) of nearly 20 percent.  Hiring of young adults in 2011 has only made modest gains in the Netherlands, France and Germany.

While the future for unskilled labor is chilling and difficult to imagine, prospects for university graduates in the EU are also bleak—their own unemployment rate is over 6 percent.  Despite the lifting of travel restrictions and visa requirements within the EU, young adults are not likely to find better hiring prospects elsewhere in the EU, so the option of migrating elsewhere is moot. 

Over two-thirds of the EU’s unemployed youth are males, which I would suggest ratchets up the danger an additional notch or two.  Imagine a testosterone-charged group of young men— idle; nourished on less-than-nutritious food augmented for some by alcohol and drugs; spending large chunks of time engrossed in violent television, movies and video games; subjected to the indignities and humiliations that come with being chronically short of day-to-day money (these indignities might include queuing for benefits or waiting for a council flat while living with parents)  – and one might conclude that profound social dislocations are likely to emerge from such a scenario.

A foreglimpse at what this youth disaffection might look like is currently unfolding in the U.K.’s civil disturbances (notwithstanding a wide spectrum of possible causes there).  In addition, social cohesion will be tested if chronically unemployed youth gravitate toward inflammatory political or religious groups that prey upon the excluded.  Even if one discounts apocalyptic scenarios, problems could ensue if unemployed youth just become dispirited, marginalized persons who look at themselves as being in but not of a larger social plan. 

The problem of youth unemployment is endemic right now in all developed countries to some extent.  But the EU’s situation, because it comes at a time of trying to rapidly achieve unity amid what you called “sheer disunity,” could be more precarious and urgent than most. A solution for the EU’s young adult population is very strongly needed.  This will no doubt require robust cooperation between the Union’s governmental and private sectors.

“What we mustn’t do though is to focus so much on the mundaneness and depravity we are describing that we end up being too depressed to rise above it.”

You are correct, and before segueing (yes, another rambling comment) into how this relates to America, first-off is to write that I don’t know Europe well; in fact even someone who has lived in Europe for years might not know Europe well enough to discuss it; it might take three or four decades for an expatriate to know Europe well enough—or perhaps longer than several decades.
I focus at this time not so much on mundaneness and depravity as on those who ignore it to the point theirs’ is—as you write—a denial of reality resulting in storing up problems for later. An example merely to add a bit of color in illustrating this: I know a ‘60s-aged Midwestern couple who are a caricature of being oblivious even though they are quite aware & responsive. To filter out the unseemly aspects of life they retreat to religion. As with the famous writer I chatted with, they say they don’t ever notice the negative things in life—until those ‘things’ affect them. And who can blame them? however they are a caricature because what they say is entirely rote, predictable; they think all positives are from Jesus, while all misfortune derives from ‘turning from’ Jesus. If I personally agreed with them, Pete, to what purpose blog at any h+, extropian, singularitarian, or any science site whatsoever? why read even Aristotle, who wouldn’t put all his eggs in the basket of Jesus, or anyone else, though he lived BCE?
The above is not merely to illustrate, albeit it mainly is; it is also to express a perplexity that even at IEET xians push their faiths a little too hard for a technoprogressive site.
To finish up, my impression after over four decades is: one of America’s main flaws is a pendular swing between being very optimistic and very pessimistic. This might be America’s number one flaw. As for Europe? you tell us, please.

...perhaps what I wrote above can be summed up this way:
there’s no objection to Christians discussing Jesus; Marxists discussing Marxian socialism; capitalists discussing the freemarket; and all the rest. But Christians can’t say the laws of Jesus (who came “to fulfill the law”) are as valid as the laws of spacetime, anymore than Marx could say the ‘laws of history’ are more valid; or capitalists can say the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is of supreme validity.
But they all do anyway.
Christians apparently think Jesus is everything; Marxists apparently think workers are everything (they pay lip service to technicians and peasants); capitalists appear to think the marketplace is paramount in all affairs public and private.

Are we walking anachronisms or what?

@rascheR du B: thanks for this comment, you are absolutely right: there are few things more inflammatory than bored male youth with frustrated ambitions. And yes, the recent UK riots, while apparently disappearing as quickly as they arose (as Cameron said, actions DO have consequences, and these people are beginning to realise it), the flammable mixture that created them exists throughout Europe and elsewhere. And maybe the stakes are indeed higher in Europe, in view of the battle between strong unifying and (even stronger?) disunifying forces.

@post-post: alas, even in Europe there are those who seem more comfortable fantasising about the second coming than doing something about the world we actually live in. And there are secular versions as well: my gripe with fellow environmentalists is that they often seem to be more anti-technology and anti-business than they are pro-environment. Like certain Christians (but by no means all), they sometimes seem to take a perverse comfort in living in a Manichean world of good (green) vs bad (brown), with the good always being the oppressed underdog, and we probably won’t win but we’ll go down fighting anyway. It’s almost a disappointment if we see that the “other side” is actually not that bad after all. What you mean we can actually co-operate with these guys? How boring.

Actually this is why I tend to champion consequentialist forms of moral philosophy, in particular utilitarianism. Whether its religious faith, deep ecology, or free market fundamentalism (there’s another one!), non-consequentialist or non-anthropocentric philosophies tend to just give up on the idea of making the world a better place for human beings and/or to have a worrying disregard for actual evidence.

I tend to agree with you that Europe is (currently) somewhat less bipolar than the US. The risk for us Europeans though is that it makes us less dynamic. One advantage of swinging between denial and defeatism is that you can be creative during your denial/optimism phase and sceptical/critical during your defeatist/pessimistic phase. Political debate in the US can be frustratingly polemic and polarised, but it’s at least lively and transparent! Perhaps Europe’s number one flaw is that we tend to just carry on what we’re doing without ever really coming clean (including to ourselves) about what we actually want, where we want to go?

every one says we have to give up social “mad-keepers” but that’s it, we gotta find a social fiscal cultural and economic pattern to benefitly wrap up all europe before ten years, and like, start soon. Razzy Hamadi is a specialist.

I would propose, create a poorness benchmark equal for whole non G20 contries, and a fusion horizon around 2025.

“Political debate in the US can be frustratingly polemic and polarised, but it’s at least lively and transparent!”

(Depends on how much we are in debt for in America. One source, Mark Steyn, wrote the aggregate debt is approximately $130 trillion: hopefully such a figure has been inflated as a scare tactic)
Again, I’m not familiar with Europe yet from visiting Scandinavia and the Low Countries, it does appear that N. Europe is slightly more (just, say, ballpark 10 percent more) civilized; plus less ‘superstitious’ than America. This was my strong impression at the time; albeit in Belgium and perhaps the Netherlands, I did notice a pronounced nihilism.
Naturally, we only really know our own countries of residence.

BTW, for all you confirmed masochists out there, this is a link to Mr. Positive Thinker’s take on American debt. Steyn is the author who recently published a book titled “AFTER AMERICA”, subtitled ‘Get Ready For Armageddon’:

it isn’t the polemics and polarization—it is the pettiness of America’s politics. Here is a prime example; with all America’s ‘problems’, this author and his bloggers are worried about gay marriage in Maryland? why would they want to fret about gays at all? if they don’t like gays they can avoid them. I don’t like it that Americans go out of their way to be petty:

We can be pretty petty in Europe as well! I think this may be ingrained in human nature. Keeping things in perspective is a specific skill at which not all of us excel - and deciding what is important and what is petty is ultimately a subjective judgement anyway.

Without wishing to put different European countries into pigeonholes I think you’ve described quite well certain European characteristics. “Civilised” perhaps requires some definition, but our population density combined with our long history of civilisation means we’ve developed quite sophisticated cultural moeurs. On the whole we ARE more secular than the US, and therefore (at least in that respect) less superstitious. And yes, the downside of this is a tendency towards nihilism (think John Gray’s Straw Dogs). Which is then related to our comparative unwillingness to really come clean about what we want and move ahead. We Europeans know a lot, but what we don’t always seem to know is what to do with all that information and education.

PS Is Steyn worth reading at all? Is it even worth following the link? It looks a lot like the kind of bipolar hyperbole you were talking about: one day they’re trying to convince us we’re going to hell in a handbasket, the next day they’re trying to convince us that heaven is just around the corner, if only we are willing to make a small donation…

correct, Pete;
Steyn is not much more than comic relief, merely another good cop/ bad cop bipolar; however it does bring up something crucial about America (will get to Europe at the end of this comment), IMO: American progressives—whatever the general definition of American progressive is in 2011—can’t seem to get something… the US was founded in the Adam Smith- James Madison era, it is commercial to the point its religion and arts are commercialized. US progressives don’t appear to quite comprehend that asking America to be democratic socialist, socialist-Lite, Marxist-Lite, is asking America to cease being America. Don’t you think if America ceased being capitalist it would cease being America as Russia+ ceased being the Soviet Union when Communism finished?
As for Europe, it would take many years, at least, for an outsider to know Europe well. Yet Europe doesn’t appear to be as ludicrously commercialized as America—and if Europe is then such is being concealed so well Europeans should get Academy Awards for good performances in hiding it.

Nice points post-post. I agree that capitalism and small government is deeply ingrained in America’s sense of identity. On the other hand there’s an unhealthy gap between rhetoric and reality. If you want a genuinely free-market, open economy, go to Estonia. There’s nothing remotely free-market or capitalist about Freddie and Fannie, a level of protection for home-owners against foreclosure that would make European socialists blush, and agricultural subsidies. In a sense, America already IS democratic socialist, socialist-Lite, Marxist-Lite. It just doesn’t want to recognise it, and from there springs much of the neurosis and polemics.

Re Europe, I agree we’re less commercialised. But I think we might go for the Academy Awards anyway - I’m not sure how many insiders really know Europe well, let alone outsiders. And I guess there’s a kind of strength in that, at least from a British perspective: we’ve always liked to confuse foreigners! (Of course the main challenge for us Brits is to decide, finally and once and for all, whether we are Europeans or not.)

BTW Pete,
you are correct that pettiness is subjective—it virtually goes without saying; though I did write of how Americans go out of their way to be petty. Also it is of course a matter of degree of pettiness: as an example don’t you as an Englishman think Europeans would be wiser to concentrate more on WMD proliferation in the world, than gay marriage in for instance Scotland or Wales? Prioritization is how we as individuals and in concert attempt to gain proportion in affairs large and small.
To America’s credit, though, its nihilism is a watered-down nihilism, IMO less potent, a “vulgar continental nihilism” as Allan Bloom termed it in ‘The Closing Of The American Mind’.

“On the other hand there’s an unhealthy gap between rhetoric and reality.”

There sure is! frankly I’m only interested in politics now to attempt to prevent another opportunistic Executive from taking the reins: another Nixon or Bush administration would be unthinkable; that is to say WOULD be unthinkable, unfortunately many Americans don’t have time to investigate issues fully, etc., so they choose what they think are the best choices available at the time they make decisions in voting. We know from personal experience that choosing what we think are the best choices available at the time we make decisions is a flawed way to make decisions—at best.
This in a way ties in with what you write on pettiness being subjective because what we perceive as petty in a given timeframe may not appear petty at a different time. Or take an micro-look at how lack of proportionality can skew priorities at the bottom. An indigent in London might rather spend his last guinea on pomade to appear slick when the funds would be better spent on food; however, subjectively, sleek hair may be at the moment more important to him.

Being penny-wise but pound-foolish; not being able, as the analogy goes, to separate wheat from chaff, is prevalent at all levels. doesn’t appear Bloom knew that vulgar nihilism could be less pernicious—
diluted nihilism.

One caveat though: focusing on the really serious issues (such as WMD profileration) can be counterproductively depressing/fear-inducing. Good to take a break from time to time and just try to make our lives better in small ways, like allowing same-sex couples to marry…

“Good to take a break from time to time and just try to make our lives better in small ways, like allowing same-sex couples to marry…”

You’ve convinced me, now you would have to convince the ‘conservatives’ (old f*rts) who tell others what to do but don’t want others telling them what to do.

One more (promise) comment on this topic:
one salient difference between Europe and America is of course the ancientness of Europe and its experience in the world wars—esp. WWII. America was never Blitzed, as your country was 1940- ‘41, Pete. So America has a deus ex machina expectation that something will save us, as for instance we are protected by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. However when a Pearl Harbor and 9-11 occurs we are shaken out of our notion of invincibilty.
Thus we can right away see one reason for the pendular swing between optimism and despair.

Given that the European Court of Justice has just banned the patenting of results of stem cell research in Europe, I guess it will be more “themepark Europe” and less “tech innovation”.

Meanwhile the eurocrisis rumbles on, and as it does so the danger remains that (as in 1914) we somehow manage to snatch defeat from the claws of victory. I expect that the crisis will (eventually) result in the fiscal union that the eurozone needs in order to operate (with non-eurozone EU members presumably continuing to opt out), but it is not safe to take this for granted. Most if not all alternatives seem likely to be catastrophic.

Pasted from The Telegraph | EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration:

Brussels bureaucrats were ridiculed yesterday after banning drink manufacturers from claiming that water can prevent dehydration.
EU officials concluded that, following a three-year investigation, there was no evidence to prove the previously undisputed fact.
Producers of bottled water are now forbidden by law from making the claim and will face a two-year jail sentence if they defy the edict, which comes into force in the UK next month.
Last night, critics claimed the EU was at odds with both science and common sense. Conservative MEP Roger Helmer said: “This is stupidity writ large.
“The euro is burning, the EU is falling apart and yet here they are: highly-paid, highly-pensioned officials worrying about the obvious qualities of water and trying to deny us the right to say what is patently true.
“If ever there were an episode which demonstrates the folly of the great European project then this is it.”

See also Slashdot | In the EU, Water Doesn’t (Officially) Prevent Dehydration.

Hmm…intriguing! I’ll have to investigate this one 😊

Bureaucracy gone wild or sleazy reporting by a sleazy right-wing Eurosceptic newspaper? (It’s supposed to be one of the “quality” broadsheets, but don’t be fooled.) Could be either I guess!

Not entirely convinced by it to be honest, but you can find an alternative viewpoint here:

More thoughts:

I am the first to ridicule nanny-state idiocracy, of which Brussels gives us the funniest (and saddest) examples every day, but I don’t think the scamocracy of big banks and corporations is any better. I find surreal the discussions between naive libertarians who love corporations and hate governments, and naive socialists who love governments and hate corporations. Today big governments, big banks and big corporations are one and the same entrenched power elite.

From a discussion on the zerostate blog:

Capitalism can be good:

Smart and hard working baker Joe knows how to make good bread. He finds a capitalist partner and opens a bakery. At the beginning he works in the bakery himself with his family, then he hires some workers. Then he opens a few other bakeries, treats and pays his workers well, and continues to make good bread and sell it at reasonable prices. Everyone wins, Joe and his family, the workers, the investors, and the rest of us who can eat good bread.

And capitalism can be bad:

Finance shark Jim bribes his buddies in government to pass regulations that put Joe (and all other small bakers) out of business. Then he opens a chain of bakeries that produce tasteless and toxic bread and sell it at outrageous prices. Of course, he continues to bribe his buddies in government to protect his monopoly. After a few years he is a billionaire who scams financial markets to bring entire currencies and economies down. He owns banks protected by the government and bailed out with citizen’s money when he needs. Every few years he (and his buddies in government) engineer a financial crisis to force people out of their homes and buy them back cheap. Everybody loses but Jim and his buddies.

I suggest that we forget the terms “capitalism” or “anti-capitalism”, and just build a system where Joe’s methods work and Jim’s methods don’t.

We need a real third-way (not one of the jokes proposed by traditional politicians, but a real third way). I want the fair EU society and its welfare safety nets without an idiotic and corrupted nanny-state bureaucracy, and I want the dynamic US society without savage social darwinism and religious fundamentalism. Is this too much to ask?

Beautifully put Giulio: no, it is not too much to ask.

I just posted this on the “What the Wall Street protest is about” thread, but I’ll post it here as well. Perhaps this points towards the “third way” (by which indeed we don’t mean the well-meant but ultimately anodyne compromise of the Blair-Clinton era)?

Highly recommended viewing anyway:

“I want the dynamic US society without savage social darwinism and religious fundamentalism.”

Not too much to ask for; but to deliver? a tall order. There is no way to arrange a modus vivendi with the GOP and its allies, they scarcely bother to hide that they are spoilers. What to do?: fight the GOP every step of the way; they wont like us for it, but they wont like us any less, either—and will harbor a grudging respect.

The current squabble in Europe isn’t the problem of diversity but fiscal mismanagement: Applying a hard currency model to states that had the habit of devaluation. The USA tried its monetary confederation as well, in the late 18th C. - here we are in modernity presuming we were exempt from the old rules, so we’re in the process of rediscovering them as new rules.

The march toward diversity and equality will continue. The counterveiling forces of overcentralization vs. local control will always need to be addressed (redress for those whose freedoms were abrogated), and some sensibility of applied macromanagement that doesn’t always default to micromanagement—in the case of some of the EU legislations, femtomanagement!

Our American neocons *claim* an interest in macromanagement only, but belie their own bailiwicks for control and meddling the minute they find ascendancy.

We need new models, ones beyond the cryptofascism in overcentralization and corptocracies, the faux largesse and noblesse of neoliberals and the penury or reaction of neocons.

@leebeet Good points…I especially like “femtomanagement” 😊 And you’re
point about neocons probably applies more universally: perhaps we all claim an interest in macromanagement only, until we actually gain power?

Still, I’m no anarchist/libertarian, at least not as a recipe for governance in the present (if we want to talk future utopias, that’s another matter). So it’s not only because I’m a Commission official on sabbatical that I sympathise with the project of monetary union, despite a certain level of deceipt involved. It’s architects knew what they were doing: the crisis would come, essentially for the reason you cite, and (they hoped) fiscal and political union would follow.

one more comment for today, three is the ideal number, however this is a post to clarify something (and since I wont reply today don’t take it as indifference) four in a row will be it.

It isn’t that I do not like religion—like it too much, albeit that is to write I want to be as brave as say libertarians in confronting the religious, but do not possess the intestinal fortitude. To illustrate this: I visit a Catholic church an average of twice a week, it is very pleasant, as Catholicism has become very sophisticated after 2,000 years; Catholics do not feel the need to act out as much as some creeds do; i.e. Baptists merely for instance. But one cannot be excessively diplomatic without becoming—ironically—tactlessly so; the interlocutor will see through it as being damning with faint praise. I can’t present to the church the bald facts,

“I think your faith is specious, and visit here not because your church is a house of worship but rather because is a pleasant cultural demilitarized zone, a place to escape the pressures of the far more commercialized outside world.”

That wont play well in Peoria, in Brussels, anywhere in Europe, or anywhere else. Being too diplomatic therefor can become undiplomatic.

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