Why is europe seen as haggard, bureaucratic and pessimistic?
In an address to the European Parliament, Pope Francis shared his impression of Europe as a “grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant”. The Pope continued: “great ideas that inspired Europe have now lost their attraction and have been replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of Europe's institutions". When the 78 year-old leader of a rigidly inflexible and reactionary organization tells that your project is doddering and bureaucratic then something has truly gone wrong.
To be fair, the entire speech of Pope Francis was more nuanced and designed as an uplifting call to action, not as a hypercritical (and hypocritical) lecture. Journalists highlighted this part of the speech because it rings true to many Europeans and outside observers. The same assessment of Europe as an overbureaucratic and overpessimistic place was given by the PayPal co-founder and regular EU critic Peter Thiel. It is fascinating how the benign leader of the Catholic Church can have a very similar assessment of Europe as the aggressive libertarian Thiel. So why is Europe seen as old and tired?
Partly because Europe really is old. The median age of all European Union countries was 41.9 in 2013 and has been rising by 0.3 years (per annum) for the past 12 years. Compare these statistics to some of the emerging economies: the median age of India is 27, Brazil is 30.7 and South Africa - 25.7. Even the greying and riddled with demographic problems country of Russia has a lower median age of 38.9. Nations like individuals measure happiness in relative, not absolute, terms.
These developing countries may lag behind in virtually every standard of living but this fact is trumped by the certainty that future generations will live much better lives than their forefathers. Hope and untapped human and economic potential keep these countries far away from the emotional doldrums.
There is also another dimension to the midlife crisis in Europe. In the 1960’s, even after the destruction of both World Wars, Western Europe and North America alone produced 70% of world’s gross output and 80% of economic value added in manufacturing. Today the economic centre of the world is gradually shifting away from the Western World in general and Europe in particular. The simple fact is that Europeans live in a historically affluent and secure period of time. But as mentioned earlier happiness is relative and the diminished importance of European countries is a source of wistful lament.
Who do you call?
Since the EU is a large supranational union it is not the most nimble of operators. Even the Pope mentioned the feeling of overbearing bureaucracy. Decisions are reached through long processes and through much compromise. Many stakeholders and interest groups are involved in the process. The former US State secretary Henry Kissinger highlighted the problem: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” José Manuel Barroso addressed the question: "We are not the United States, we are not China, we are not Russia and we do not want to be... We are a union of states, so by definition our system is more complex."
Today many powerful countries seem to be single-handedly ruled by political strongmen: Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping in China. These leaders favour competition over cooperation and multilateralism. The collapse of socialist regimes around the world was supposed to usher in a new age of international politics and the EU was to provide a model for a new liberal international order. Needless to say these predictions did not come true. These powerful leaders may subvert the liberal order but they also defend national interest and produce fast results (or at least this is the perception). Their aggressive leadership style, support of nationalism, and display of power creates a sense of vigour and boisterous youthfulness, while the bickering of EU leaders is perceived as petty, aloof and unproductive.
It’s the economy, stupid!
I believe that economic strength is the defining factor in the formation of the zeitgeist. For proof let’s look at the last time Europe felt truly affluent.
After the death and destruction of WWII Europe was in shambles. The gaze of Europeans was fixed on the horrible past and they expected more of the same in the future. What followed were more than 20 years of high, sustained growth and a remarkable expansion of prosperity. Between 1950 and 1973 the GDP per capita of Western Germany increased in real terms by more than 300%. Other European countries (including Italy, France, and Austria) increased their GDP more than two times times in the span of 25 years. Even the socialist countries of Eastern Europe saw their economies expand rapidly and modernize.
The productivity of European workers also received a major boost. In the thirty years between 1950 and 1980 the productivity of Europeans grew three times faster than the preceding eighty years. Efficiency was complemented with a shift in the nature of work away from agriculture and into manufacturing and services. Increased consumption followed increased production and now a large middle-class could afford modern conveniences such as televisions, refrigerators, washing machines and automobiles. There was more disposable income left for travel and leisure. Perhaps the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan best summed the upbeat mood of times in a 1957 speech: "let us be frank about it – most of our people have never had it so good."
Talkin' 'bout my generation
Europe not only felt affluent but also very young. The post-war period was marked by an increased birth rate that produced a sizeable youth bulge known as the Baby Boomer Generation. Europe felt flooded with young people. By 1960 almost a third of the population of Ireland, Finland and the Netherlands were under 15 years of age. In previous decades such a demographic explosion would have raised fears of food shortages or at the very least produced a grim mood of uncertain future and low job prospects. But the high economic growth and spreading affluence negated such worries.
The prosperity of the post-war period allowed young people to indulge their whims and not worry too much about securing their future – which was reflected in the prevailing iconoclastic attitudes. The focus shifted from production to consumption and led to the ascent of consumerist culture. Baby Boomers were widely considered to be the first generation (in a long while) to genuinely believe that the world would improve. However misguided, their beliefs and expectations for the future were very optimistic.
What followed was the most dispiriting decade of the second half of the 20th century: the 1970s. A prolonged economic downturn complemented with political violence quickly erased the plastic optimism of the previous decade. It was a time of knowing cynicism and shattered illusions. Many felt they had to pay the price for the wanton consumerism and overindulgence of the 60’s. The cohort of young people was still formidable but they were more worried about finding a job than changing the world. Communitarianism and the advancement of common causes gave way to individualism and self-interest.
Prosperous times beget consumerism, optimism and (sometimes) communitarianism while bad times lead to more self-centredness, cynicism and pessimism. In both decades (the 60’s and 70’s) there was a sizeable cohort of young people but the outcomes were starkly different. The mood of the times was ultimately moulded by prevailing economic conditions. The price of happiness turned out to be money.
What we have now in Europe combines the worst of both worlds: ageing society and a protracted period of economic stagnation. As a result we have an atmosphere of division and pessimism. Emerging economies seem full of vitality and are making huge strides in progress. Europeans live in a “post-everything” world where the biggest hope is to make some improvements at the margins. If Pope Francis was a businessman he would have likened emerging economies to a brash start-up with a shaky business plan but explosive potential. The European Union is just a tired blue-chip company, which hit its zenith a long time ago and is now contemptuously trying to stave off irrelevance and a sliding market share.
Albert Camus wrote that mediocre times produce empty prophets. Perhaps the well-intentioned Pope Francis is one of them and Europe is not in such a woeful state. But true or not, lingering perceptions have the habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecy.