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The Myth of the Atlantic Divide

Posted by Helen Friday, September 24, 2004

We hear a lot of that these days. Europeans and Americans do not agree on anything. Europeans do not support Americans in the fight against terror. The United States under Bush has managed to lose its European allies, has gone in for unilateral power-politics.

Then there are the supposedly more profound comments with the rather idiotic heading of Americans are from Mars, European from Venus. Presumably, that means that Americans are more action oriented, while Europeans are more emotion-oriented, emotion being a good thing in these people’s minds. (No doubt the Franco-German push to raise the arms embargo on China in despite American attitudes is one of those Venusian attitudes.)

What is actually the truth? Is the United States acting unilaterally? Well, not exactly. A recent study by the Heritage Foundation points out that the multinational force in Iraq consists of troops from 29 countries. Of these, 19 are European and of those 12 are EU members. Setting aside Sweden, Ireland, Finland and Austria, which are neutral, that makes a majority of EU members, even with Spain pulling out, in the name of peace, as Prime Minister Zapatero explained incoherently to the UN General Assembly.

France and Germany with their allies are not involved but that does not make an Atlantic divide. In Afghanistan, of course, even France and Germany are reluctantly contributing and the international security assistance force consists of 35 countries. So much for unilateralism.

On other issues, there has been a somewhat illuminating exchange of letters on openDemocracy, a somewhat Brahmin website that is definitely not part of the forces of anarchy as represented by most blogs. Petr Mach, adviser to President Vačlav Klaus, has taken to task our old friend Jeremy Rifkin, who extols the European dream as one that will surpass the American one (no doubt in a purely non-Martian way).

Mr Mach’s point is quite simple: Europe or, rather, the European Union is less free than the United States.

“European governments influence public opinion with state-run television, and use taxpayers’ money to influence the outcome of elections. Most national legislation is decreed by the European Union bureaucracy, instead of being subject to the votes of democratically elected parliaments. In short, the admired European “welfare state” relies on government interference with the media and a stronger role for bureaucracy in the legislative process.”
In his response, Mr Rifkin does not deny the accusation. He is far too smart for that, or so he says, explaining rather grandly and cringe-makingly that he has spent “one-third of [his] time in Europe over the past two decades”. Yes, the problems are there but

“…these failures notwithstanding, a new generation of Europeans is creating a radical new dream – one that may be better suited than the American dream to meet the challenges of an increasingly interconnected and globalised world in the 21st century.”
No doubt the EU tendency to support dictators, insist on protectionist trade policies, and subsidise failing economic ventures is what he means.

Actually, it is hard to work out what he means. He produces strange economic and social figures that appear to be lifted from the Commission propaganda sheets and prove that the EU (or some of it) has a higher GDP than the US and is a bigger market than the US. So what?

Then he produces all sorts of figures that show there are more physicians per 100,000 population and the average life span in the “fifteen most developed EU countries” is higher than in the US. (I expect the average life span in the twenty five richest states in the US is even higher.) These figures are a little slippery, in that sometimes they apply to 25 member states and sometimes to 15, depending on what Mr Rifkin wants to prove.

There is no mention, for instance, of high unemployment, the low growth, aging population, straining welfare systems, increasingly desperate attempts to reform those apparently wonderful European social systems.

It is, however, in the general arguments that he really tries to score:

“For Europeans, however, freedom is not found in autonomy but in embeddedness. To be free is to have access to many interdependent relationships. The more communities one can access, the more options one has for living a full a meaningful life. It’s inclusivity that brings security – belonging, not belongings.”
This is, of course, how poverty-tourist Europeans tend to talk of the poorer countries. One would dearly like to know whether Mr Rifkin lives up to this precept. Certainly, he prefers to live in the materialistic America rather than the embedded Europe, whither he comes on visits to lecture us all.

However, he is right on one thing: there is a new European outlook and Petr Mach is an authentic spokesman of it. He concludes his letter with a direct challenge, that, alas Mr Rifkin fails to answer, perhaps because the analysis of his own thoughts is more accurate than he would wish to acknowledge:

“In short, the ‘European model’ that European socialist politicians proclaim and liberal Americans admire is not necessarily the model appreciated by ordinary Europeans.

What you admire about Europe are policies influence by intellectuals and bureaucrats rather than ordinary citizens. As a consequence, what you admire about Europe is its lack of freedom.”
Old Europe and new clash but old Europe seems to have a very odd champion.