The End of Europe as a world power?

May 13, 2010

Is Europe’s reign as dominant global power over after roughly 500 years? Richard Haass of the Financial Times looks at the state of the EU in the early 21st century and says it’s time to say goodbye (registration required):

Even before this economic crisis, Europe was weakened by a political crisis. Many Europeans have been preoccupied with revising European institutions, but repeated rejections of the Lisbon treaty demonstrate that a united Europe no longer captures the imagination of many of its residents. Lacklustre leadership of European organisations is both a cause and a result of this loss of momentum.

Behind this drift is the stark reality that Europeans have never quite committed to Europe, largely because of the continued pull of nationalism. If Europeans were serious about being a major power, they would trade the British and French United Nations Security Council seats for a European one. This is not about to happen.

Europe’s drift also manifests itself militarily. Few European states are willing to devote even 2 per cent of their budgets to defence; and what they spend their money on makes little sense. National politics and economics dictate expenditures, so there is much replication of what is not relevant and little investment in what is needed. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Afghanistan is a case in point. The European contribution there is substantial, with more than 30,000 soldiers from EU countries. But the involvement is uneven, with nearly a third of the troops coming from the UK. In many cases the roles are diluted by governmental “caveats” that limit missions, a lack of equipment and commitments of uncertain duration. European political culture has evolved in ways that make it harder to field militaries willing to bear the cost in blood; the US secretary of defence describes this as “the demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it”. All this limits Nato’s future role, as Nato mostly makes sense as an expeditionary force in an unstable world, not as a standing army on a stable continent.

Time and demographics will not improve the situation. Europe’s population has levelled off at about 500m and is rapidly ageing. By mid-century the percentage of Europe’s adults who are older than 65 is projected to double. Fewer will be of military age; a smaller number will be working to support the retired.

Or, as Mark Steyn likes to say, demography is destiny.

One thing to bear in mind was the Europe’s extensive (and enervating) social-welfare state was made possible because the United States largely bore the cost of keeping the Russians from eventually rolling on to the Atlantic after World War II. At the time, it was necessary: Britain was bankrupt and Western Europe was largely flattened by the war. But the moral hazard created by having someone pay for their defense beyond the point their economies could afford to pay their own way let them instead buy social peace (and votes) through large-scale government welfare. This in turn lead to fewer children being born, and hence fewer people of working age to support the increasing number of elderly retired folks (who retired at ever-younger ages), until they hit they point they’re at now, when the state can no longer afford those promised benefits.

It’s hard to say what could have been done differently, however, given the geopolitical realities of the Cold War.


UK election news

April 19, 2010

Britain has called a general election for a new Parliament, to be held on May 6th. Looking at today’s Telegraph, I came across what appears to be Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s main argument for giving Labour a new majority: “the Tories will screw things up worse than we have.

Gordon Brown says Conservative election victory would threaten economy

The Prime Minister told a London news conference David Cameron’s ”big society means big cuts in public services.

”It’s a risk for our mainstream public services that Britain cannot afford to take.”

Mr Brown was attempting to shift the election spotlight away from Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s recent poll successes and back on the substantive issues like the economy.

He said Labour was in the ”futures business” with bold and ambitious plans for the country, while the Tories were in the ”risk business”.

Given Labour’s track record of fiscal screw ups and their pursuit of “Green” policies that will leave Britain in the dark, it looks like the only real risk is leaving them in power.

Then again, the Conservatives under Cameron don’t seem all that different from Labour, these days. They’re certainly not Thatcherites.

What’s truly surprised me is the strength of Britain’s main third-party, the Liberal Democrats. Formed from a merger of the old Liberal Party and the Social Democrats, I don’t believe it’s ever been the official Opposition(1), the number two party in Parliament, let alone formed a government. But the polls show they’re currently in second place and perhaps have momentum. Could they wind up forming the government? Part of a coalition with Labour? The party is a strong believer in individual liberty in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, but their commitment to social liberalism with its inherent high taxes and extensive welfare state seem at odds with this.

And again I ask, given Labour’s track record, the Conservatives’ promise to not change too much, and the Lib-Dems’ official support of an expensive welfare state, is there really all that much daylight between the three? And, if there isn’t, will the dissatisfied vote for the fascist BNP in significant numbers?

(1)The article refers to the old Liberal-Social Democrat alliance polling ahead of Labour in the 1983 general election, in which the Conservatives won a crushing majority, but Britain’s “first past the post” system gave Labour the second-highest number of seats.