Why Europe Won't Be Running the 21st Century

For a number of years now the European think tank world has been busy churning out report after report with ever more grandiose proposals for turning the European Union into a global superpower.

One of the more provocative essays in this genre is titled ‘Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century', which was written by Mark Leonard of the London-based Centre for European Reform. Leonard's thesis is that Europe will dominate this century because it is based on a new understanding of power, which is embodied in the institutions and norms of the European Union. He argues that the economic, political and social models of the European Union are irresistibly attractive to the countries around it, and as they adopt the European economic and legal framework, they are transformed from the inside out. By contrast, Leonard asserts, even though the United States might be able to use its military power to change regimes, it cannot change societies, and thus it is weak when compared to the ‘transformative' power of the European Union. This is why Europe will dominate the 21st century, or so Leonard would have us believe.

But is Europe really destined to become a global superpower? A growing body of research says no. Indeed, overwhelming evidence supports the view that contemporary Europe is beset by a mix of problems that is so complex, that apart from dramatic changes in public policy, Europe is headed toward certain decline, not ascendancy.

Demographic Collapse?

Although European elites imagine that their political and social models are so obviously attractive that they will be adopted by the rest of the world, ordinary Europeans don't seem to think so. In fact, demographic trends suggest that most Europeans don't even believe in the European ideal in sufficient numbers to want to pass it on to the next generation.

According to the European Commission, the average birth rate for the European Union as a whole is now 1.4 children per woman, which is well below the 2.1 replacement rate. By way of example, the country with lowest fertility rate in the world is Spain, where women have an average of only 1.07 children.

As a result, deaths will start out-numbering births in every member state of the European Union by as early as 2010. But some countries have already reached that point. According to Germany's Federal Statistics Office, more people died in that country in 2005 than were born. And Germany's demographic decline is the norm, not the exception in Europe. Indeed, Europe's population is forecast to decrease by more than 100 million by 2050.

But not only are Europeans declining in number, they are aging as well. According to the US Census Bureau, Europe in 2000 had the highest percentage of people aged 65 and older, and this figure is set to double by 2050.

Economic Uncertainty

Why should Europeans be worried about declining birth rates and aging populations? Economic stability is one reason. A shrinking workforce will find it increasingly difficult to pay for the rising costs of ever more retirees. Indeed, economists predict that European budget deficits will balloon as governments strain to reconcile declining tax bases with millions of elderly people who force up spending on pensions and health care.

But that's not all. German business leaders, for example, are already worried that the population decline with hurt their country's competitiveness. German demographers predict that by 2030, their country will have 7 million fewer people of working age than today, but 8.5 million more people of retirement age. So although today there are two workers supporting each retiree, within one generation the ratio will be one-to-one. Many economists say this will spell the end of the European social welfare state as we know it. And because Germany is Europe's largest economy, it serves as the benchmark for Europe as a whole.

Political Instability

As European countries edge closer to a pension crisis, political stability is another reason why Europeans should be concerned. Germany, for example, was brought to a standstill more than once by citizens protesting the Harz IV reform package. The aim of those reforms was to reduce payouts to unemployed people and to make it more difficult for them to refuse job offers. Although the government held firm, it was also voted out of office. In any case, two years later there is still no sign that the reforms have made Germany's stagnant economy any more competitive.


Economic frustrations among French and Dutch voters also contributed to their rejecting the European Constitution. Indeed, European citizens seem unwilling to sacrifice their social security benefits on the altar of further European integration. Der Spiegel, the leftwing German news magazine, recently ran a story in which it observed:
"Europe has become a continent of political crises with governments in Italy, France, Britain and Poland all suffering from paralysis or a lack of voter approval. Is the continent about to abandon its integration project and return to the old era of national rivalry?"
Geo-Political Decline

Europe's demographic situation is in stark contrast to that of the United States, where the population officially passed the 300 million mark in October 2006. The United States is now the third most populous country in the world, behind China and India. Moreover, the United States is growing faster than any other industrialized nation... in fact, it is virtually the only developed country expected to grow this century. All analysts agree that America's demographic dynamism will have major geo-political implications, especially for Europe.
Some Europeans are beginning to acknowledge this reality. The Paris-based EU Institute for Security Studies predicts that by 2025, Europe will represent only six percent of the world's population and that its relative share of global wealth and trade will have shrunk. It says that
‘the ongoing debate on the future of Europe suffers from a lack of perspective on the global developments that are changing the context of European integration itself...the risk is that the Union and its Member States will be increasingly subject to, rather than agents of, change.'
The False Promise of Immigration

How did the United States, which turned 230 years old in July 2006, get so big so fast? American growth has been fuelled by a combination of economic stability, high birth rates and immigration. Indeed, the United States is the largest immigrant-receiving country in the world. Some 50 percent of the 100 million newest Americans are recent immigrants or their descendents.

Europe, however, is also a magnet for immigration: It will attract up to 1 million newcomers this year. But the European experience with immigration is quite different from that of America. Part of the reason is that many immigrants to Europe end up on welfare, while in the United States, almost all immigrants take one or more entry-level jobs and work their way up the economic ladder. Welfare is simply not the American way.

Islamic Conquest of Europe?

Moreover, most immigrants to the United States are fully integrated into American society by the second generation, regardless of their country of origin. By contrast, most immigrants to Europe are Muslims who refuse to assimilate and instead tend to cluster in marginalized ghettos on the outskirts of cities across the continent.

Here, too, the American experience is quite different. The best available estimates show that there are between 1.9 million and 2.8 million Muslims in the United States. And unlike their European counterparts, American Muslims generally do not feel marginalized or isolated from political participation. According to a 2004 Zogby Poll, American Muslims are more educated and affluent than the national average, with 59 percent of them holding at least an undergraduate college degree. Moreover, the majority of American Muslims are employed in professional fields, with one in three having an income over $75,000 a year.

But back to Europe: The Muslim population of Europe has more than doubled since 1980, and according to some estimates, there are some 25 million Muslims living on the continent today. Demographers predict that this figure may double by 2015, and that the number of Muslims could outnumber non-Muslims in all of Western Europe by mid-century. This prompted Princeton University's Bernard Lewis to tell the German newspaper Die Welt that ‘Europe will be Islamic by the end of the century.'

This reality is already influencing European foreign policymaking and does not auger well for the future of transatlantic relations. Indeed, many analysts believe that the steady weakening of Europe is the underlying cause for the widespread anti-American and anti-Israel bigotry found among Europe's elites, many of whom are bowing to pressure from Muslim residents as a way to buy a fake peace with radical Islamists. Says Fouad Ajami, a well-known authority of the Arab world: ‘In ways both intended and subliminal, the escape into anti-Americanism is an attempt at false bonding with the peoples of Islam.'

A European Crisis of Spirit

Some analysts believe that what ails Europe is not primarily a crisis of demography, but rather a crisis of spirit. Michael Novak of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI) says that in their blind pursuit of reason, secularism and materialism,
"European elites have done their withering best to empty Europe of its Christian spirit. They have swept Europe clean just in time for the rapid rise of a rival faith [Islam] prolific with children, vitality, passion and confidence in long-term victory."
But by removing Judaism and Christianity from European cultural, intellectual and public life, secular Europeans are largely responsible for the lack of confidence ordinary Europeans have in the future. Indeed, the lack of faith not only in tomorrow-but also in God-begets hopelessness. And without hope for the future, one is less likely to want to bring children into the world.

Will Europe Become More Like America?

Most economists agree that demographic decline goes hand in hand with economic decline, and that economic decline, by definition, leads to a loss of influence on the global stage. Although European elites dream about a day when Europe will act as a counterbalance to the United States, the facts imply that Europe's future will be considerably more modest.

There are solutions to almost every problem facing Europe today. But ironically, those solutions imply that Europe must become more (not less) like the United States in its political, economic and social models.

That is to say, as long as European elites insist on building a Europe whose main purpose is to check American power, Europeans are certain to lose over the long run. But if they can bring their ambitions more into line with reality, both Europeans and Americans are set to win.

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.
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