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Calmly Contemplating the Abyss


The European Crisis may be the beginning of the end for civilization on the continent -- or not.

June 12, 2005|Timothy Garton Ash | Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at St. Antony's College in Oxford, England.

Contemplating the European Crisis -- I think a capital "C" is called for -- I find myself driven to reading Arnold Toynbee, the philosophical historian of the rise and fall of civilizations. Because one plausible long-term interpretation of the chaotic reaction in Europe since the French "non" of May 29 is that it is a symptom of a civilization in decline, if not in decadence.

How ludicrous that the prime minister of Luxembourg should insist, like some East European communist leader of old, that black is white, that everything can continue just as before.

How absurd that, confronted with the greatest popular challenge to the European project since its inception, France and Britain can think of nothing better than to face off for a vicious cross-channel squabble over their respective contributions to an EU budget that costs the average British or French taxpayer less than 5 euros a week.

If I were Chinese, I'd be laughing all the way to the bank. After the European centuries from about 1500 to 1945, and the American century from 1945 on, the Asian century dawns. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times acidly observed, while Europe is trying to achieve the 35-hour week, India is inventing the 35-hour day. Whatever our "knowledge-based" advantage, no economy can compete successfully on such terms. Things must change if they are to remain the same.

Toynbee's answers to why civilizations decline and fall have been largely discounted by professional historians, but the question remains a good one. As with all terribles simplificateurs, some of his ideas are, at least, suggestive. For example, among the characteristic features of disintegrating civilizations he finds the Siamese twins of archaism and futurism. Some people wallow in the memory of a golden age that never was, while others glorify an imagined future.

Does that sound familiar?

Then there is what he calls the Idolization of an Ephemeral Institution. For some Europeans today, that idolized ephemeral is the nation-state, for others, the EU. And there is his basic, and perhaps rather obvious, point that the decline of civilizations proceeds in a series of routs and rallies.

In the first half of the 20th century, Europe inflicted upon itself the mother of all routs. In the second half of that century, it produced a formidable rally.

Although the EU cannot match the U.S. in military power, it does in combined gross domestic product and social attractiveness. It is the world's largest single agglomeration of the rich and free. Moreover, it has just gotten larger.

In 1976, Raymond Aron wrote a book called "In Defense of Decadent Europe." His great concern was that Western Europe was losing its self-confidence, its will to win. The challenge, he feared, was the Soviet-dominated, communist-ruled half of Europe. His fears in respect to the communist East turned out to be unjustified. Eight post-communist democracies joined the EU on May 1 last year. Never before have so many European states been liberal democracies, joined in one economic, political and security community.

Yet the European Crisis has arrived just a year after this triumph and is partly caused by it. For, among many other things, the French and Dutch votes were also rejections of the consequences of enlargement and of the prospect of further enlargements.

Aron also worried about Europe's low birth rates, which have become still lower. "The civilization of self-centered enjoyment," he dared to write, "condemns itself to death when it loses interest in the future." Of course, looked at from another viewpoint, the very low birth rates in Spain, Italy and Germany are an expression of increased liberty: a woman's right to choose.

But it's common sense that states then need someone else to support so many pensioners. That someone is at hand: a young, vigorous, growing population just across the Mediterranean, eager to come and work.

But Europe is proving very bad at making Muslim immigrants feel at home. The Dutch "nee" was in significant part a vote against Muslim immigration, and the French "non" was in part against Turkey joining the EU.

It may not have escaped your attention that this analysis of European decadence bears a startling resemblance to that of U.S. neoconservatives and anti-Europeans, against whose crude caricatures I have often fought. To this, I would say two things:

First, U.S. neocons would be idiots to gloat. Europe and America are two parts of one larger civilization. If the old Europe goes down, it will be enormously damaging to long-term U.S. interests.

Second, it's up to us to prove those neocons wrong.

Nothing hinted at here is inevitable. Jeremiads are meant to be self-denying prophecies. The European project has many times moved forward, through and out of crisis. It helps to stand back and, with the pessimism of the intellect, calmly contemplate the abyss. But then, after a period of reflection, we should act.

Give yourself a treat: Prove a neocon wrong.

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