Europe’s real crisis is complacency and inertia

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt


‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’

Ernest Hemingway borrowed the title of his celebrated Spanish civil war novel from 16th century English metaphysical poet John Donne. Now, the words are fast becoming a solemn knell for the European Union.

There is a sense of complacency enveloping much of Europe, contrasting uncomfortably with the resentful anger that is fuelling Eurosceptic populism. Unfortunately, when it comes to policymaking, complacency has the upper hand.

The warning bells that tell of Europe’s decline in terms of global influence, solidarity between EU governments and economic wellbeing have so far been little heeded. But they must be – or they risk becoming akin to Donne’s funeral chimes.

As I noted in my last column, the European project’s achievements over half a century still far outweigh its present shortcomings. But in a global economy and European political climate undergoing such rapid change, this is no time for the EU to rest on its laurels.

We Europeans need to take a long, hard look at our current position and future prospects. They’re not encouraging

We Europeans need to take a long, hard look at our current position and future prospects. They’re not encouraging. Quite apart from the ‘live’ issues pressing in on the EU – Brexit, the refugee influx and propping up the eurozone – Europe has deep and unresolved structural problems.

Generalisations are difficult. What’s defined as poverty or social progress in one EU country may not be perceived in the same way in others. Average figures, nevertheless, have the value of pointing to overall weaknesses.

Take demographic patterns. Patchy as they are in some member states (Germany is shrinking rapidly but the UK’s population is growing healthily, in economic terms), they offer vital lessons.

Europe has roughly four people actively in work for every retired pensioner. By the middle of this century, if not before, that ratio will have dwindled to 2:1. The implications for virtually bankrupt pension and social security systems are horrendous. So the first step is to get unemployed young people into work, whatever the cost. They are among Europe’s most precious assets.

Perhaps Europeans can square the circle by escaping the economic doldrums in which many have been trapped since 2008? If only. The forecasts point towards Europe falling further behind in the global wealth race. Average GDP per capita in the EU is now about two-thirds that of the United States, and is set to drop to three-fifths by 2025.

And the 2020s are shaping up to be a most unpleasant watershed. When top European business executives were surveyed by consultancy firm Accenture, a substantial majority thought China would draw ahead of Europe on technological innovation by the early part of the next decade.

The first step is to get unemployed young people into work, whatever the cost. They are among Europe’s most precious assets

Every year, Europe’s universities still account for half of the world’s major scientific breakthroughs. But for reasons that are well known – mainly a lack of capital and government help, but also an absence of entrepreneurism – these discoveries often don’t translate into commercial innovations.

These are uncomfortable facts. But they aren’t secrets hidden away from the public gaze. Sadly, nor are they part of the policy debate animated by national politicians or by the EU itself. If Europe’s voters are both complacent and seduced by the simplistic solutions of populism it is in large part because they don’t have the bigger picture.

The EU’s various arms grapple daily with most of these issues, and they report their progress in piecemeal ways and technocratic detail. What they avoid doing is tolling the bell that warns of overall, and perhaps irreversible, decline. That’s because they fear to appear ineffectual. But it is the only way to wake Europeans to the reality that no single EU country has the means to resolve these problems alone.


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