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The Future of Europe

Peter Wicks

Ethical Technology

August 15, 2011

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.


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