A Crisis of Wishing

By Walter Laqueur | 14 June 2010

Europe used to be, within the living memory of many of us, the cockpit of world power, prosperity and prestige. Today it is raw material for an ouija board. Predictions about Europe’s future range from its impending suicide to its emergence as a unified, leading economic and political superpower. Of late most predictions, especially those coming out of Europe, have been on the dour and pessimistic side, and for good reason.




The Europeans have gotten themselves into a strange fix. They have expanded their Union to the point of decision-making paralysis but would consider expanding still further. They cannot deepen the Union, lest residual memories of democratic accountability roil Europe’s individual national souls. But the Union may have to be deepened, for as the Belgian politician Leo Tindemans noted in a famous report on the future of Europe more than thirty years ago, a house half-finished will not last. As the Greek crisis has shown, economic union without considerably more political union will not work. The European Union has established new central offices, but dares not staff them adequately. Meanwhile, its liberal immigration protocols, having stimulated a widespread anti-immigrant backlash, are now in de facto abeyance; but the demographic collapse of the native populations demands immigration to keep economies from collapsing as well. In nearly every sense, then, the European model, and the European promise with it, is locked in a crisis of wishing: The further the Europeanists try to go forward, the harder it is for them to move anywhere at all.

It was not always this way. The postwar generation of European elites aimed to create more democratic societies. They wanted to reduce the extremes of wealth and poverty and provide essential social services in a way that prewar governments had not. They wanted to do all this not just because they believed it was morally right, but because they saw social equity as a way to temper the anger and frustrations that lead to violence and ultimately to war. They had had quite enough of war. For several decades, many West European countries nearly achieved these aims, and they had every reason to be proud of that fact.

Nonetheless, during the past few decades the European welfare state has been under growing pressure. Services have had to be cut, and anxieties have mounted as expenditures continue to rise and budgets to shrink. The political economy of the welfare state is based on the assumption of substantial economic growth—a Ponzi scheme of sorts, yes, but not an unreasonable one. What if growth dwindles, however, or ceases altogether? These issues are now widely discussed in Europe.

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