It is perhaps not surprising that Europeans, in the midst of the most severe economic crisis in decades, are reluctant to embrace an ambitious foreign policy agenda. But why are they also entirely uninterested in economic reforms that would improve virtually every aspect of their lives, including, in the end, foreign policy?
Almost everywhere else in the world, the prospects of growth, increased prosperity, higher competitiveness, lower unemployment, and higher tax revenues mobilize both the political class and the wider public to embrace liberal economic policies. This is what is happening in almost all of Asia, large parts of Africa (which has the highest growth rate of all world regions), Latin America, and even Russia.
The same rationale is energizing the debate in the United States, as if to underline the old adage that America’s business is business. But, in Europe, it completely fails to motivate either elites or electorates.
Now, I don’t want to sound cynical here. I understand that in some of Europe’s most crisis-ridden places—including Greece, Spain, and Portugal—economic hardship has driven parts of the population into a survival mode that makes them focus only on the here and now. But Europe’s failure to get enthused about competing for global economic leadership is not a recent phenomenon triggered by the euro crisis.
Few people outside the Brussels bubble even remember the failed Lisbon Agenda of 2000, in which the EU aimed to turn itself into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.” That was to be achieved within a decade. But this ambitious declaration was never followed up by decisive reforms, because declarations and real intent never really coincided. By 2010, none of these goals had been reached.
At the recent Global Security Forum in Bratislava, former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme was asked whether Europe could retain its status as an eminent power if its economic performance deteriorated any further. He said it could not, and then spelled out the steps necessary to get the continent back on track. It was all about promarket, liberal economic reform, but Leterme did not forget to include some thoughtful words on social inclusion and cohesion. His vision evaporated without eliciting a single comment from the audience.
Now, of course, Europeans want to be rich just as much as anybody else. But this desire fails to generate the political energy needed to embark on a reform course that could get them there. Neither in times of crisis—when economic reform is decried as “brutal austerity” designed to subjugate the weak into economic and political submission—nor in times of relative stability, when reform seems unnecessary and politically inconvenient.
When Germany started its own economic reform program in 2003, calling it “Agenda 2010,” then chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented painful cuts out of sheer necessity, not because of the similarly named EU plan. Schröder was driven neither by major ambition nor by long-term vision. He just wanted to survive politically and realized that, in the face of abysmal economic data, he needed to do something drastic.
Inadvertently, Schröder set the country on a path to political eminence and foreign policy clout. But even in today’s Germany, nobody wants to be reminded of this reform program, least of all the Social Democrats, who put it on track.
In Europe, the word reform itself has a bad ring to it. Reform is seen not as a chance for rejuvenation, but as a threat to the comfy things people have become accustomed to.
It is a puzzle to me why the idea of turning the old continent into a vibrant, innovative, and energetic economic player doesn’t mesmerize political audiences across Europe. Why does the notion of setting up the best schools and universities, building the most modern infrastructure, fostering the most innovative research, establishing the most advanced healthcare systems, and offering the most creative services—to name but a few elements of a good life—fail to tickle the imagination?
It would be easy to blame the EU. Economic liberals will, of course, complain that the European Commission creates bureaucratic abominations infused with statist antimarket thinking. Activists on the left will grumble about the very opposite. In their eyes, the EU’s singular focus on neoliberal economic policies has paved the way for the social distress witnessed in parts of Europe today.
Neither side gets it right. Overall, the EU is a staunch advocate of free markets, liberal economic policies, and unfettered competition. And, at the same time, no other part of the world spends as much on welfare and social cohesion policies as the nations of Europe.
The problem lies elsewhere. Europe’s zest has gone. Neither national governments nor the EU can infuse European citizens with an artificial enthusiasm about how to master the future. Europeans have to develop that hunger themselves.
The crisis in Europe, it seems, is not primarily about the EU. Nor, at its roots, is it about politics. Maybe it is much worse than that. Could it be a lack of appetite for a better future?