European Style Going Out of Fashion at Ballot Box


The recent political earthquake in Europe has great implications for the United States, both internationally and domestically. The unpopularity of European Union institutions produced record-breaking votes for a motley assortment of anti-establishment parties across the Continent, suggesting it’s time to stop looking across the Atlantic for role models as Europe’s dismal prospects have inspired the lowest levels of political support in several decades.

Many of the parties that did best in the May 25 multinational balloting for the European Parliament – from Greece’s Far Left Syriza party to Britain’s oddball United Kingdom Independence Party and France’s historically racist National Front – are hardly ideal candidates for responsible governance. Yet, despite their many blemishes, these and other anti-EU parties fed on growing distaste for the 28-nation EU’s sprawling, largely unaccountable bureaucracy blamed for, in the words of one British group, “undermining” liberal democracy in these countries.

This suggests that it’s time for Americans to stop looking across the Atlantic for role models. For decades, American gentry liberals have seen the EU as a superior mode of governance. Jeremy Rifkin’s 2005 book, “The European Dream” – and a host of similar tracts that all assert European superiority – now may seem absurd on their faces, but it’s doubtful many EU boosters, here and abroad, will let facts get in their way.

The Urge to Merge

The bigger loser in the May elections was the notion that more concentration of power leads to better results. Many American intellectuals and policy wonks favor handing ever-greater control to the “best and brightest” who run academia, much of the media and the bureaucracy. Figures, such as former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, argue that power should shift from naturally contentious elected bodies – subject to pressure from the lower orders – to credentialed “experts” operating in Washington, Brussels or the United Nations. This notion suggests the popular will is too lacking in scientific judgment and societal wisdom to be trusted with real authority.

Yet, as the EU parliamentary elections suggest, people object to having details of their lives controlled from a great distance. Beyond the Right, many on the Left also nowoppose the Brussels-based EU for imposing austerity measures on several struggling economies. The British website Socialist Alternative saw the vote not just as a shift to the right but “a revolt against the capitalist establishment,” which remains, like the bureaucracy and media, devotedly pro-EU.

In the United States, there is also mounting resistance to centralization. The 2010 congressional elections reflected a reaction to attempts by President Obama and his Democratic Party to put more of our lives under Washington’s control. Even now, less than two years after the president’s re-election, opposition to an extended federal role is, if anything, even stronger. Less than one in five Americans trust the federal government, and barely two in five see it as even capable of reversing the inequality. There may be a groundswell of support for the social democratic goals of the Great Depression’s New Deal, but likely not for the reimposing of its highly centralized policy prescriptions.

Energy and Economy

Pundits, such as the New York Times’ Paul Krugman, routinely describe Europe’s approach to economic, environmental and social policy as far more enlightened than that in the U.S. Wherever possible, progressives push European style in areas such as energy, with strong attempts to force a rapid conversion to “green” energy.

Yet, there’s not much to cheer for in Europe’s energy policy. The attempt to turn the Continent into a renewable-energy superpower has been hampered by soaring prices. The policy has increased dependence on unreliable and expensive renewable power – as well as Russian natural gas – forcing some European countries, including Germany, to boost their use of coal, certainly not much of a victory against climate change.

Ultimately, the consequences of high energy prices tend to fall, as they do here, on the middle and working classes, who see their electricity bills soar, along with the cost of gasoline. Some Europeans, in fact, may see their jobs threatened as employers look for lower-cost alternatives, including moving to energy-rich parts of the USA.

Addressing Inequality

In seeking out economic models that promote greater equality and upward mobility, many pundits look to Europe as a model. French economist Thomas Piketty’s influential book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” argues that the only way to confront increasing income inequality and prevent deeper social fracturing is to expand the “social state” that forcibly redistributes wealth. In his mind, economic growth, traditionally a prime source of social uplift, is little more than a “illusory” solution.

Like many American progressives, Piketty looks to governmental action as the sole force for greater equality. Financed by taxes on wealth, the “social state” would curb the rich, but would also empower the bureaucracy and other parts of the rising clerisy with unprecedented power.

Yet recent European experience also provides little support for the benefits of redistribution, given the persistently high rates of unemployment across most of the EU. This is particularly true for much of the Continent’s youth, who are widely described as “the lost generation.”

Just as in the United States, pervasive inequality and limited social mobility have been well documented in larger European countries, including France, which has among the world’s most evolved welfare states. This is true even in historically egalitarian Sweden, where, over the past 15 years, the gap between the wealthy and other classes has increased four times more rapidly than in the United States. As Europe’s population ages, and its economies stagnate, demands for redistribution may well increase, but the ability to pay will surely decline.

Issue of Immigration

Concern over immigration has been a key driver in mounting anti-EU sentiment. Immigration has always been a more contentious issue for Europeans, who generally belong to a single ethnic group and prefer something closer to homogeneity than to the kind of rolling ethnic evolution that characterizes the United States. This nativism has been painfully evidenced in recent decades in from everything from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the far more civilized dismantling of Czechoslovakia to France’s recent campaign against the Roma, Catalonia’s attempts to divorce from Spain, and even the upcoming vote on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.

During the boom times of the 1950s and ’60s, many European countries – France, Germany, Netherlands and the U.K. – invited hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, many from outside Europe. But with European labor markets far weaker, such an infusion seems to many middle- and working-class voters as a threat to their economic futures as well as to their identities.

Immigration played a role in UKIP’s victory in Britain’s voting for European Parliament.Diversity in London, by some counts home to the world’s largest concentration of immigrants, thrills London’s media and business communities but stirs resentment, particularly among more working- and middle-class voters. The fact that as many as 87 percent of new jobs generated in the recovery go to immigrants has not warmed their sentiments.

Future of the ‘nation-state’

As we look to how to reform our own less-than-perfect union, adopting the European approach seems, at best, misguided. One does not have to share the Tea Party’s reflexively hostile view of government to see that attempts to expand control from Washington could, in the long run, create the very stagnation and often-ugly political reactions that we see in Europe today.

More to the point, the drift toward an EU-like state works against the very structure of the American political community, designed to disperse power among various levels of government and varied constituencies. The tendency of administrations to rule through executive orders, or regulatory agencies, has been growing, particularly during the Obama years; a centralized state also could pose a threat to progressive Americans and their values under conservative rule.

For America, this may be the biggest takeaway from Europe’s crisis. Our political culture, for all its problems, was designed to allow localities greater leeway in determining their own fates. There are many areas – water, air quality, arterial road infrastructure – that require cooperation along regional lines, but, for the most part, the best approach, whenever possible, is to allow localities to control their fates. It is a decentralized, bottom-up system that, for the most part, has performed far better over time than the dysfunctional blunderbuss that is the European Union.

This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.