Whose Europe? Our Europe!

01 October 2006
Despite its imperfections, the European social model is worth fighting for as a counterpoint to neoliberal ideology, writes George.

Like the famous Dickens opener in A Tale of Two Cities – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ – Europe has always excelled at both the best and the worst. In the 20th century alone, Europeans committed some of the most horrendous crimes ever conceived by a perverse humanity – fascism, concentration camps, the Shoah on one side; communism, sham trials, the Gulag on the other. Their quarrels also caused two hugely destructive World Wars, wreaking carnage on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

Although Europeans did not invent slavery, they long benefited from it; they caused untold deaths and suffering under colonialism and imperialism. Anyone who cares to delve further back into history will find pitiless religious wars, the Inquisition, the divine right of kings and l’Etat c’est moi – one could go on and on. The continent will be a long time expiating its sins and the duties of remembrance will weigh for generations to come.

Yet Europe has also reached perhaps the best humans can attain. Tourists flock to its shores from all over the world to gaze reverently upon the remaining treasures of the age of faith and the Renaissance. They want a taste of the artistic exuberance of Italy, the grandeur of chateau life, the music, in situ, of Bach, Schubert and Mozart; the cuisine everywhere. They too want to feel, as the Germans say, ‘as happy as God in France’ – to describe the ultimate degree of felicity.

This is the continent that invented the opera, chamber music and the symphony orchestra, the classical ballet, easel painting, the museum, and although the printing press could also be credited to the Chinese, mass publishing. Europe displayed not just cultural inventiveness which, after all, began as an outgrowth of the Church or a pleasure for the aristocracy, but also excellence in political, scientific and technical innovation. For the first time since the Greeks, the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment brought with them a genuine spirit of free inquiry. The scientific method was born in Europe and set humankind on the road to discovering all manner of marvels – and all manner of dangers as well.

Revolutionary Europe

Even though the US got there first, political revolution is also the child of Europe. The French overthrew their absolute monarchs and their hereditary masters and mistresses, even going so far as to behead them – a move whose wisdom is still hotly debated. Many other revolutions and struggles for national unification followed. The ideals of democracy slowly gained ground; the amazingly contemporary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 should be framed in gold on every law-maker’s desk. Europe invented parliaments, trial by jury, the right to a lawyer and guarantees for the defence – it even invented national Constitutions. Painfully, much later, it separated Church and State.

For over 200 years, Europeans have marched in the avant-garde of human emancipation. If workers are less exploited and women more free; if people can change jobs and enjoy paid holidays, if all children, rich and poor, are in school and virtually everyone knows how to read and write, that is Europe’s doing. So is universal healthcare, both preventive and curative, the eradication of hunger and the lowest rates ever of maternal deaths in childbirth and infant mortality.

None of these advances happened by chance. They came about because people could either elect officials prepared to fight for them or, when necessary, fight for them themselves, sometimes in the streets, often giving their lives. Moreover, the continent known for its age-old propensity to war has been, with the exception of former Yugoslavia, at peace for 60 years.

I beg the reader’s indulgence here because I want to bring personal testimony to this court of opinion. As someone born in the United States, allow me to draw attention to the unravelling of that country’s social system: the 40 million Americans without health insurance, the collapsing schools in poor neighbourhoods, the plight of millions of poor people destined to remain forever at the bottom of society. When Hurricane Katrina struck, people in Europe couldn’t believe the pictures they were seeing on television of an America suddenly part of the Third World.

I have had the good fortune to live in France, where, at ten-year intervals, I completed two higher degrees, including a PhD –about six years of post-graduate study in all. This cost our family about $100 a year. With three children to educate, seizing such an opportunity would have been unthinkable had I lived in the United States. Although some European universities now do charge for tuition, the sums required bear no comparison to the astronomic expenditure demanded for a college education at, say, Harvard or Smith, where I went, now of the order of $40,000 a year.

Similarly, when my husband became gravely ill, he received admirable care in the French public health and hospital system which went to enormous lengths to save, then to prolong his life over a year and a half and, finally, allowed him to spend his last days at home surrounded by his family but with a full home-hospital system in place. All this cost our family zero.

I provide these examples in order to argue that Europe has a social system worth safeguarding and fighting for. It is under grave threat from neoliberal ideology and politicians in our individual European countries and from the European Commission in Brussels, the most neoliberal in history, who are doing their best to dismantle this system in favour of an American-style, class-based, privatized social model which betrays all the ideals Europeans have upheld over centuries. Public services, which were not ‘too expensive’ when Europe had a GDP half the size it is now, have suddenly become so – doubtless because they provide huge benefits to citizens but no profits to private investors.

Welfare not warfare

Sceptics who claim there is no such thing as the ‘European Social Model’ should be directed to a huge 450-page report from the International Labour Organization called Economic Security for a Better World. This tome, based on vast databases, 48,000 interviews and the labours of platoons of statisticians, sets out to measure various components of economic security in some 100 countries containing over 85 per cent of the world’s population. The premise of the report is that the quality of security in your daily economic activity will have an overwhelming influence on the quality of your life. The International Labour Organization further believes, with considerable justification, it has come up with an ‘objective measure of individual happiness and wellbeing’. Seven different categories of economic security – income, job, job markets, workplace, skills and training, control over work content, individual and collective ‘voice’ – are measured against universal criteria, then combined in a weighted average. This average shows that, objectively measured, Europe’s systems take top marks; that Europeans can be said to enjoy greater personal wellbeing than other people.

This is in no way to say that the European model is perfect: neoliberalism has made many breaches in the walls of the welfare state; floorboards are missing here and there, people can and do slip through the cracks. Nor are public services always blameless, flawlessly efficient and free of corruption. But as one trade unionist, Mike Waghorne of Public Services International, points out: ‘If your sink leaks or your paint is peeling, you don’t burn down or sell the house – you fix the sink and repaint.’ The propaganda we have lived with in Europe and elsewhere for the past two decades has told us, instead, to sell or destroy the house. Too many governments have been happy to take the one-off, windfall privatization money and run.

Preserving the European system should not, however, be seen as of interest only to Europeans. At the most basic, even tautological level, the existence of this model, here and now, proves that it is possible. It holds up to the world the fact that a decent life for everyone can be imagined and largely put into practice; that politics must remain dominant over the marketplace, that the system of taxation and redistribution can result in universal social protection, that people are not only less stressed and depressed when they benefit from economic security but also more productive and creative; that this system generates positive, measurable economic benefits as well as social ones.

This is an extremely inconvenient political fact for those, including a large part of the European managerial class and the European Commission, who would much rather prove that huge inequalities, mass privatizations, worker ‘flexibility’ and a State that governs on behalf of large corporations and financial markets are A Good Thing.

Geopolitically, the existence of the European model furthermore provides the ‘threat of a good example’. We know we can expect little from the US in the foreseeable future. The Warfare State will not morph into the Welfare State and the environment can go straight to the Hot Place, as it shows every sign of doing, before Texans give up their SUVs. China, another contender for the Top World Model prize, seems bent on applying the worst aspects of both the capitalist and the communist systems. Many quite fascinating and positive developments are taking place in Latin America, but that continent lacks the unity, the high GDP, the population and the educational and technological levels of Europe. So if anyone is interested in proposing a universal, perfectible social and ecological model of benefit to all citizens, Europe would seem the only candidate for the post – at least right now.

A democratic Europe

Should we expect this to happen through natural evolution? Not at all. It won’t unless European citizens pull up their collective socks and make it happen. Europe as now conceived needs a complete economic and political overhaul. The EU-25 have a ridiculous common budget; a Central Bank independent of any political oversight and prepared to quash expansion and more employment opportunities at the merest tremor; a Parliament that can’t initiate legislation or levy taxes and therefore no Europewide taxes; an incapacity to borrow and launch treasury bonds on international markets; no solidarity funds to bring the 10 newcomer countries up to speed; huge obstacles to closer co-operation between states that want to advance faster...

But all is not lost. The French and Dutch votes against the proposed Constitution – perhaps the most complete neoliberal compendium ever drafted – were not anti-European per se but against the betrayal of the social model it would have instituted. The Commission is still busily trying, illegally as it happens, to resuscitate this defunct Constitution. As the Vice-President of this body, Gunter Verheugen remarked after the French and Dutch votes: ‘We must not give in to blackmail’. So much for popular sovereignty and universal suffrage. Many politicians would indeed, like Verheugen, be delighted to consign democracy to the dustbin as a 200-year aberration in human affairs and let the technocrats and the élites get on with it.

But Europeans have been there before. It is unlikely this time that they will cry ‘Off with their heads’ or parade around their capitals with pikestaffs, but as soon as they understand the stakes, they will not give up on Europe because they will not betray their own history. Or so we must all hope – whether Europeans or not.

The top 20 countries on the Economic Security Index [which goes from 1, perfect to zero, abysmal] are: Sweden at 0,977, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Israel and Italy. The United States is number 25, with an index of 0.612.

Published by The New Internationalist