The European Model Gets A Makeover

Europe - NASA view iStock_000005884810XSmall.jpg

Does the United States finally have its first European President in Barack Obama? Does he truly want to Europeanise the American health system and impose European-style socialism on the US? assures us that ‘his policies on government spending, taxation, health care and carbon emissions would all tend to bring America in line with European norms.’

It is a powerful message – or it would be were the US not already in line with European norms in nearly every way that matters. In terms of social welfare expenditure, working hours, socialized health and even military spending, the US slips snugly in place among its European counterparts.

So why the constant comparisons between the US and Europe? It’s all rather simple: people who refer to ‘Europe’ as an alternative to the United States rarely specify which European countries they mean. Europe is a continent consisting of around 50 countries (its borders are debatable) of which only 27 are in the EU and 26 in NATO. These countries run from Liechtenstein, with the highest GDP per capita in the world, to Kosovo, which is poorer than Nigeria. The idea that one common European policy or culture could exist in such a diverse environment is absurd.

Europe, as a single economic system with a single culture simply doesn’t exist. It is a myth, pushed by some on the left as an egalitarian liberal alternative to the US, and by some on the right as an example of a socialist failure – neither side ever defining what Europe actually is.

Perhaps this is all a little pedantic. After all, we know that when people talk about European socialism they mean France, Germany and Sweden, not the irrelevant, piddling little states like Ireland, Latvia and, eh, Russia. By far Europe’s largest and most populous country, with more than three quarters of its population living on the European side of the Urals, Russia is rarely counted as European at all. Commentators often ponder ‘Europe’s response to Russia,’ a nonsensical statement unless ‘Europe’ is clearly defined as the EU, or the European NATO members, or whoever.

When Europe is left undefined in this way, it becomes a convenient catch-all tag to mislead, reinforce prejudices and polarise debates. Look no further than the present debate about health care in the US, where Obama has been criticized for wanting to Europeanise American health care, the implication being that there is a single European socialist alternative to the US. Glenn Beck pounced on this idea last July:

America’s health care is much better than Europe’s…. Americans have a better survival rate for 13 of the 16 most common cancers than Europe. Take prostate cancer: 91.9 percent of men live through it, versus 73.7 percent in France and just 51.1 percent in Britain.

These are shocking statistics, but puzzling. France and Britain are just two of Europe’s 50 countries, so why are they picked to represent the rest? In fact there is massive variation in cancer survival rates across Europe. Poland managed to save only 37.1% of prostate cancer victims. But Austria, with its heavily socialized health system, had a survival rate of 86.1%.

Just days ago a study by the Israeli Health Ministry showed that the US has a total female survival rate of all cancers of 66%, with Finland managing 67%. Glenn Beck could avoid the fact that Finland’s socialized health care is a bit better at saving women from cancer than the American system, because he simply generalized about the entire European continent and cherry-picked two convenient statistics from it.

This October, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi told an audience at Brown University that the US should follow Europe’s lead in recognizing health care as a right. As a left-wing Italian, it’s understandable why Prodi would say this: in 2006, government expenditure on health made up 77.2% of total health spending in Italy, compared with only 45.8% in the US. The European region as a whole averaged at 75.6%, much higher than the US.

Yet government health expenditure in Italy’s neighbour Albania made up only 37.3% of the total health spending. Cyprus was 44.8%. Switzerland 59.1%. Moldova 46.9%. Georgia was only 21.5%. Prodi seems to have ignored these countries because they were inconvenient for his generalization, yet they are crucial to the debate. If Obama is trying to ‘Europeanise’ the American health system, does it mean he wants to cut government expenditure to Albanian levels or increase it to Iceland’s?

As it happens, the US government under Bush spent more on health as a percentage of GDP than most European countries: 7% in 2005 compared with only 4.3% in Poland, 5.3% in Slovakia and 5.8% in ‘socialist’ Norway.

Nobody would judge American policies – for example, its social protection or welfare programs -- by averaging out policies in Cuba, Costa Rica, Canada, Nicaragua and any other countries that happen to share the continent with it, but this happens with Europe all the time. Donald Rumsfeld seemed to realize it was silly when, in 2003, he dismissed Germany and France as ‘old Europe’, pointing to NATO’s centre of gravity shift into eastern Europe. Rumsfeld had a point: many of the former Communist countries have distinctly different economic situations to some of those in ‘old Europe’.

In 2005 the EU countries with the highest expenditure on social protection as a percentage of GDP were Sweden (32%), France (31.5%), Denmark (30.1%), Belgium (29.7%) and Germany (29.4%), all ‘old Europe’ nations. OECD statistics for 2005 show the US has a much lower expenditure on social protection, only 15.9%.

How about new Europe? Latvia spent only 12.4% of its GDP on social protection in 2005. Estonia spent 12.5%, Ireland spent 18.2% and Romania spent 14.2%.

Perhaps the strangest reference to Europe in recent times came after Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Wall Street Journal had this to say:

George W. Bush may have retired from American public life, but the Europeans want the Yanks to know they never want to see his likes again…. On one level, all of this represents the parochial European foreign policy agenda…. The Europeans are applauding that at long last there is an American President willing to let himself and his country mingle as equals with this amorphous global “majority.”

The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is chosen by five Norwegian committee members, who are, in turn, elected by the 169 members of the Norwegian parliament. Norway is not a member of the European Union.

Yet somehow the Wall Street Journal managed to convince itself that five Scandinavians in a small non-EU country represent well over 700 million people and all fifty European countries’ foreign policies. This makes as much sense as phoning up Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and dubbing their opinions as representative of ‘American foreign policy’.

Let’s be clear. It’s not that there aren’t trends among European countries, especially among the ‘old’, wealthy, West European countries. But in terms of most socio-political indicators, the US sits quite comfortably inside the European group, rather than standing apart as a radical alternative to it. The US isn't even the highest in military spending as a percentage of GDP: Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece all spend more.

It would take little effort for journalists to point out what exactly they mean by Europe: EU members, NATO members, Western Europeans, etc. So let’s not talk about this non-existent Europe anymore. At best it is lazy and inaccurate; at worst it is misleading and divisive.

Shane Leavy is a freelance journalist for hire. Born and raised in Ireland, he has lived on three continents and been published on four, made an award-winning radio documentary on the banned Chinese religious movement Falun Gong, and written about science, religion, travel, culture, politics, environment and business.