The Europe that was

Nova Gorica, Slovenia

Yesterday I arrived in New Europe. Slovenia, the jewel of the former Yugoslavia and a recent entry into the EU, is prospering.  Large new homes are being built in the hills. The casino is expanding. The Slovenian stock market was the best performer in Europe last year, more than doubling in value. The trappings of western society are everywhere, with new cars, computers, cell phones and shopping malls.  There is little that suggests that Slovenians are living less comfortably than their northern Italian counterparts across the border. 

Last week I toured Tuscany with a group led by the historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson. Florence and Siena, and the hill country are old Europe, but old means beautiful in this case. These are museum towns. There are museums to visit, but the towns themselves are museums.   No new cities will ever look like these places do.  The locals understand that tourism is THE business of this area, and they are eager to please. Part of this I suspect is the Italian national character. Part of this is also because Italians do not resent Americans the way the French and British intellectuals do. Americans, seemingly undeterred by a weak dollar, were the overwhelming presence in Florence. 

Italy and Slovenia are linked in some ways that are not described in the tourist guidebooks.  The two countries are competing for the lowest birth rate in the world, each averaging slightly over one child per family.  A few other European countries are also in the process of assuring their nations shrink over the next few generations. Slovenia and Italy are, historically, almost exclusively Catholic countries. But in Italy the churches are more museums than places of worship for the current population of Italians. Those who were praying in the churches I visited were Americans.  It is very rare to find a Florentine resident wearing a cross. 

Slovenia has reached a different stage. The EU almanac I was going through last night has a summary fact sheet on each of the 25 member countries. One of the entries is for religion. After Catholics, the leading religion in Slovenia is listed as atheist.  I do not know if the national census has a spot for atheists among religions, or whether the Gallup organization or some similar group conducted a survey to get this information. But Slovenia is not unique in this listing category.

Atheists are the leading religious group in the Netherlands at just over 40%. They are the second place religion of Slovakia and Estonia. Many countries in Europe do not yet break out their atheist population. But you can guess at the numbers from reading the data that is provided. The share of the population for all listed religious groups is in many cases barely 50%. All of the groups Americans would consider as religions are in decline, with one exception —— the Muslims. In several European countries, such as France, the Netherlands, Britain, and Belgium, the registered population of Muslims is now between 5 and 10% of the total. But it is growing in all of Europe.

An anti—immigrant political party held a rally near where we had dinner one night in Florence. Their literature warned of an Islamic invasion of Italy. This sentiment is now mainstream, and is shared by a lot more Europeans than was the case a few years back, when the anti—immigrant parties were headed by Le Pen or Haider, and were seen as racist and beyond the pale. Still they garnered 20% or more of the vote in national elections. Today, nationalist parties that want to limit immigration are a growing force in many European countries.

As Europe, apart from its Muslims, becomes more and more a continent of non—believers, its birth rates continue to drop. Raising fewer children, or none at all, also means more  Euros and more time with which to lead the good life.  Financial incentives for families to have babies, now in place in several European countries, seem to be having a bit of success in a few places, but only enough to delay the national day of reckoning, not solve the problem inherent in a low national birth rate. 

Increasing immigration from Arab countries and Africa is not something that was just bound to happen. The low birth rates, combined with the social systems of most European countries —— lengthy vacations, early retirement, free or modestly—priced health care and higher education, and substantial pensions, is putting the squeeze on European work forces and national finances. The EU is mandating that national budgets run no more than small annual deficits. More and more countries will soon be hitting the limit, or exceeding it. Greece will in a short time be the first country in the world with one worker employed for each retiree. That economic model does not work, and will not ensure social stability. Immigrants will have to come to do the work at low pay that Europeans do not consider worthwhile any more, and help pay for the costs of the social welfare system.

America is dealing with this issue as well, though we are a nation with just over 5% unemployment, half that of most European countries. Europeans could put a brake on immigration if their unemployed filled the jobs the immigrants come to work. As Victor Davis Hanson has pointed out, there are places in America where Mexicans and other recent immigrants are still not working at certain jobs which they almost exclusively fill in California, and suburbias around the country. While the direction on this front is not that much different than in Europe, America is a nation that has had a 200 year experience absorbing immigrant populations. By and large, most immigrants have assimilated into American society over time, and later generations no longer viewed themselves as hyphenated Americans or outsiders. The immigrants congregating in the square outside our hotel in Florence, and those living in shabby immigrant communities on the outskirts of many European cities, are not being absorbed into their societies in the same way.  It is apparent that in Europe, the native stock is shrinking, and the immigrant population is growing, and it will become us and them, not the melting pot, however imperfect, in America.

It is inevitable that the social model of Europe will have to change for this to be avoided. This is not merely an issue of increasing retirement ages, or shrinking the safety net.  European labor and economic policy have rewarded leisure more than work for many years. This is why the graduates of the India Institute of Technology flock to America and not Europe. The high tech boom in America is in large part a result of this  immigration, as people seek real fortunes, not just better lives. America has immigrants who do yard work, and others who perfect new chip technology. The American wild west business model, filled with both failure and success, is not the model that Europeans have wanted. They have adopted a bureaucratic model that preserves jobs in dinosaur companies, and makes it difficult to create new ones. The tour guides in Florence will always be there, and Italy will export its leather goods and fashions. But Italy has been a spectator rather than a participant in the new businesses that are creating the new jobs around the world.

 Since 1950, the American population has almost doubled, growing by more than 140 million people. In Europe, the population is already dropping each year in Russia and several former satellites, and a few places in Western Europe as well. In Slovenia, the demographic model forecasts a drop of a quarter in just the next few decades. Great Britain and Italy have reached their high water mark at around 60 million people, and are headed lower.

The EU population is growing by bringing more nations in, but it is bringing together a collection of countries with the demographic model of West Virginia, and increasingly filled with newcomers with a different skin color and religion from their long national experiences. This is unlikely to be a pretty thing as it is played out. Add to this the attempt to create a super state out of countries with strong national identities and distinct languages. America created a nation from Delaware, Virginia, New Jersey and other colonies that became states, all of which used English. As Europe faces the social collisions that are ahead, it is also trying to eliminate nationality for the rule of Brussels. This will not make things easier, and it will not go down well in many cases.

Europe is very much worth a visit. But it is probably not where the future lies.