For much of the last quarter century, European pundits, particularly in France, have been promoting the notion that the old continent sat on the verge of a grand resurgence. The events of the past month—culminating in a trillion dollar rescue of the Euro—should, at least, put that dodgy notion to rest.
Although the financial crisis may have originated on Wall Street, it’s been Europe and the Euro that now represent the big threat to drive world markets back into recession. The show stealers are India, China and Brazil. Still the big boy on the block, the American economy is growing, albeit not spectacularly.
What a change from the heady predictions of the European elites just a decade ago. Back then Jacques Attali, eminence grise for former French President Francois Mitterrand, asserted that “Japan and Europe” would likely “supplant the United States as the chief superpowers wrangling for global economic supremacy.” More recently, author Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book about what he defined as The European Dream, a green-tinged, social democratic ode to enlightened diversity that he predicted would supplant the declining dirty, unruly model forged by the United States on the world stage.
You can blame the spendthrift Greeks for this trouble, or even the lack of geeks in Europe (anyone found a continental Google or Apple lately?). But Euro-stagnation is nothing new. It’s deeply rooted and longstanding. Indeed, since 1970 it has not been the U.S. that has faded before the onslaught from the East, but the core 15 nations of the European Union. Over that 40-year period the EU-15’s share of world GDP has plummeted from roughly 37 percent to under 28 percent; the American chunk, roughly 27 percent, has stayed remarkably even. Basically Asia, and particularly China and India’s gain, largely has been at Europe’s expense, not our's.
In stating the case for European superiority, much has been made by boosters of Europe’s different institutional framework, tax or regulatory structure. No question these have advantages and disadvantages compared with those of the United States, but there’s little case for arguing that the “Euro-model” has been a rip-roaring economic success. It’s imploding on its weak periphery, and the collapse is threatening even bigger players, including the United Kingdom.
Europe’s problems extend well beyond policy, into the realm of culture and demographics. Even in France, people and what they do actually matter more than abstract ideas. A culture that believes in itself, not only to have children, but also start businesses and innovate will overcome one, however theoretically well managed, that does not. This is the fundamental problem of Europe as whole, although it does not apply equally to every individual country in the union.
One key element is demographics. According to the most conservative estimates, the United States by 2050 will be home to at least 400 million people, roughly 100 million more than live here today. In contrast, the populations of much of the EU, as well as most of East Asia, will be stagnant or falling over the next few decades. Like other advanced countries, the United States will be aging but not nearly as quickly. By 2050, there may be close to 40 percent of the population in Japan and Germany over 65; in the United States that proportion should be closer to 25 percent.
If there’s going to be a European dream, they better start importing people or creating them. Otherwise, the European workforce will be dying out, literally. Between 2000 and 2050 the population of the U.S. between 14 and 64 is projected to expand by some 44 percent, while that of the EU contracts by 25 percent and Japan’s by over 40 percent.
With its growing workforce, the United States will require substantial economic growth in order to stave off downward mobility of its young population. Europe’s prime challenge will be to pay for its aging population with a diminished workforce, and perhaps find ways to invest in faster growth economies. Europe’s future may be as the world’s coupon-clippers, consultants and waiters.
Yet this may not be the fate of all Europe, particularly if the grand neo-Bonapartist European is allowed to fizzle and national characteristics can reassert themselves. The aptly named PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) make clear that you can not enjoy a Scandinavian welfare state with a Mexican-style economy. You have to earn the right to six weeks of vacation and Porsche-level heath-care plans.
This contrasts with the productive, disciplined countries of the north—roughly today’s version of the Medieval Hanseatic League—who continue to export goods and services enough to sustain their expansive, and generally less corrupt, welfare states. Essentially you have the sunny, good food and times countries—an arc from Portugal to Spain—and the gloomier places like Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany.
A secular kind of Protestant ethic is alive and well in post-Christian Europe. In some countries like Sweden and Denmark, blond and red-haired baby-making is making a modest comeback, lifting the future prospects for these countries. As for the Mediterranean crowd, get used to African or Arab chefs cooking your pasta. It might not be too bad, as long as the weather holds up.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.