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A United Europe in the 21st Century: Eclipsing the American Dream?

Lennon Wall, Prague, Czech Republic
Europeans unite in hopes of avoiding another devastating war.
Skyscrapers in Brussels, Belgium
Glassy skyscrapers in Brussels — Europe's new capital — are filled with Euro-crats.
Airport signs in Amsterdam, Netherlands
At the Amsterdam airport, you can still go Dutch…but the signs are in English only.
By Rick Steves • May 2005

The American Dream — the promise that anyone can succeed through hard work — has powered this country since the days of the Founding Fathers. Born of a rough-and-tumble frontier society, the American Dream guided us as we established the first great modern democracy, tamed the West, and rose to become the world’s richest and mightiest power — and eventually its only superpower. In short, the American Dream is what made America great.

But just a decade after the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War, our nation has been gradually pulling away from the rest of the planet. Recently, the American government has begun acting like a gross caricature of the American Dream — the lone “cowboy” who acts unilaterally, impulsively, and violently.

Meanwhile in Europe, the progressive, idealistic policies of the 1960s — dismissed as “old hippieism” in the US — have taken root. They’ve matured into a politically viable mix of tolerance, multilateralism, and environmental-friendly policies that governments are embracing and electorates are supporting. The United States grows more conservative (as it deals with the new realities imposed on it by the “age of terror”), while the so-called “Old World” is experimenting with a new way of doing things one that’s arguably better suited to fit into the more globalized world that’s emerging in the 21st century.

After defining the two different “Dreams” and their origins, I’ll look at how these two visions are playing out in the world today and what they might hold for the future.

The American Dream

The American Dream is the creed of the rugged individualist — a belief that anyone who works hard can succeed. It started as an egalitarian ideal that balanced the opportunity to better oneself economically with a guarantee of certain basic human rights. As free agents in a free society, we would all have equal access to economic opportunity. To the American pioneer, government was, at best, a necessary evil whose main duty was to preserve a nation free from tyranny and unnecessary restraints on the individual. Even today, most Americans see big government as a potential threat to — more than a protector of — their autonomy, property rights, and freedoms.

The American Dream’s innovative spirit, hard work, and belief in the capitalist marketplace can be credited for our prosperity as a nation...but that’s not the whole story. The rise of the United States from a scraggy nation of rebels to the world’s richest country was possible in part because we enjoyed the ideal environment for our success: a vast, fertile, and barely populated continent; abundant slave labor followed by a flood of cheap, hardworking immigrant labor; a common language; natural resources (lumber, iron ore, oil reserves); and moat-like oceans isolating us from the horrible destruction of the World Wars in both Europe and Asia.

The American Dream served us well as an isolated continent, but, as humankind evolves, the era of nation-states seems to be giving way to a more global, multilateral consciousness. If this is the case, then the most powerful and unilateral nation-state on earth may be the one most resistant to change. As our planet shrinks and intercontinental communication and commerce is as easy as the click of a computer mouse, the American Dream feels more and more self-absorbed and perhaps outmoded.

The European Union

A frustrated Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously asked in 1977, “What telephone number do you dial to reach Europe?” Today Europe can be reached easily, and the phone number starts with 011-32-2 — that’s Brussels. The European Union — an economic trading bloc with increasing political clout — now speaks clearly, in a single voice, for all of Europe, at least when it comes to domestic and trade issues.

Twenty-five nations have pooled their resources and made a common commitment to a common destiny. The European Union — with 450 million people — makes up seven percent of the world’s population. (The United States has 300 million, or five percent.) Europe now has the world’s largest economy, with a GDP of $11 trillion (slightly larger than the US’s). Now the third-largest government on earth (after China and India ), the EU is unique in that it has no claim to territory.

The European Union was born out of the destruction of war, designed to never again allow a war do to it what World War II did. The nations of Europe are sacrificing national autonomy for the security of no more war and the efficiency of a big free-trade zone. Nudged slowly and steadily on by visionary Euro-crats, the former rivals have gradually (and often reluctantly) morphed into a single union whose motto is “unity in diversity.” And a new superpower is born.

It took a series of small, barely-noticeable, but ultimately decisive steps. In 1951, France, Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Italy created the European Coal and Steel Community, the nucleus of a future united Europe. This union helped overcome the biggest obstacle to maintaining peace in Europe — the economic rivalry between France and Germany. In 1957, they took a further step with the Treaty of Rome, which founded the European Economic Community. Its immediate goal was gaining economic efficiency by creating a “Common Market,” trading some economic independence for free trade and uniform standards. Initially sold as an economic coalition, the EEC was always designed to progress step by step toward greater unity. Leaders foresaw the day when the nations would wake up and find a complex and thickly interwoven web of networks that was impossible to untangle...and Europe would be one.

In 1987, the European Parliament was created, a giant step. In economic and environmental issues, this was the first time that states couldn’t veto decisions. The government of Europe was gaining real power.

Then came the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, and with it the rise of a newly-reunited Germany. Before 1989, the EEC’s mission was to not be swallowed up by the competing super powers (the US and the USSR). Now unity was necessary to ensure that other European countries wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a strong, reunited Germany. The threats felt by the emergence of a united Germany trumped the reluctance to trade away sovereignty.

With the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, the EEC became the European Union (EU) — now clearly much more than just a free-trade zone. Its agenda: to develop a common currency (the euro, 2002), a common defense and foreign policy, and a common stance on justice and human rights. In 2004, 10 new nations joined the EU, bringing total membership to 25.

Today’s European Union has a president and a military (although member states can veto any commitment to military action). The EU parliament can make laws that supersede the laws of its member states. Its court has jurisdiction over EU citizens. It has a uniform currency, the euro (currently used in half the EU). It legislates and regulates on matters such as commerce, trade, education, and the environment. Its citizens have a common passport.

Still, many EU residents aren’t totally sold on the idea. When you talk to average Europeans about their new union and its advantages — including the ability to stand toe-to-toe with America in trade negotiations — you don’t sense a lot of enthusiasm. While political and business leaders are rah-rah EU cheerleaders, it seems most residents are “Euroskeptics” who prefer to focus on the fiascos. (For example, the adoption of the euro currency resulted in less buying power for individuals — and Europeans love to complain about it.)

This unique political institution has evolved more quickly than the citizens’ mindset, but that’s nothing new in Europe. In 1861, when the united nation of Italy was created, locals still identified with their regions, and leaders declared “We’ve created Italy, now we need to create Italians.” The visionaries behind the EU know that a similar situation exists today. In less than 50 years, a growing segment of its population is feeling more European than German, French, Spanish, Polish, Estonian, or anything else. While many old-timers are less enthusiastic about it all, a new generation — “Generation E” — is growing up European.

With or without exuberance, the European on the street knows that progress towards further integration is necessary, inevitable, and is here to stay.

Europe’s new consciousness is global. The idea is to expand human empathy, not national territory. The focus is on sustainability, peace, and harmony. It challenges the idea that progress be measured in material advances. Such idealism — so out of fashion in America — is now generally accepted in Europe as prudent public policy. Gandhi said, “There’s more to life than increasing its speed”…and today’s Europe is taking those words to heart.

The American Dream vs. the European Dream — Two Very Different Visions

As Europe emerges as an economic and cultural superpower, it’s becoming clear that its beliefs and traits are often 180 degrees different from the United States’. The American Dream emphasizes autonomy, national pride, and material wealth. Meanwhile, Europe’s vision of the future emphasizes community, cultural diversity, and quality of life. While America values hard work, property ownership, and a unilateral foreign policy, Europe champions fun and free time, human rights, and multilateralism.

America pursues military security by unilateral action; Europe builds interdependent alliances. In personal life, Americans achieve happiness by self-reliant accomplishment; in Europe, a full and meaningful life requires lots of communities and relationships. While the American Dream emphasizes economic growth at any cost, the European Dream stresses sustainable and environmentally safe development. While the American Dream glorifies the work ethic, the European Dream strives for fun and leisure. The American Dream is tied to religion, while the European Dream is secular. While Americans sport red, white, and blue bumper stickers saying, “Proud to be an American,” Europeans believe we’re all in this together. While the American Dream is personal, the European Dream is communal. This may seem naively altruistic, but ultimately Europeans recognize that looking out for the greater good ( the “common wealth”) is in their own best interests. And superstars are not as prized in Europe — where they say the grain that grows taller will be cut first — as in America.

America (and all the cultural influences it has graced — or cursed — the planet with) is still envied, but it’s no longer as admired as it once was. Our way of life no longer inspires, but is increasingly derided. American ad jingles that used to sell in Europe now turn people off. We are actually feared, as most Europeans rate the United States as the most dangerous (to world peace) country on the planet.

Here are several ways in which the American Dream is at odds with the European Dream:

The Economy

Free trade is important. It has long driven the need for bigger political units. In the Middle Ages, it cost merchants half the value of their goods to simply ship their wares a few hundred miles down a river (paying tolls to those “robber baron” castles as they crossed the borders of little states). Britain, with the first established single internal market, emerged as Europe’s first big economic power in part because of the flow of trade without tariffs and customs. In 1600, Europe had 500 separate states. In 1900, 25 states governed most of Europe. About a hundred years later comes the next stage: the unification of all Europe.

As the 21st century unfolds, the United States maintains its “go it alone” approach and belief in the wisdom of unbridled competition. Meanwhile, the European Union is establishing unified standards of operation, and government guidance is enabling competing companies to coordinate for efficiency and greater overall productivity. This suits high-tech industries well, giving collaborative Europeans an advantage over the competitive American approach.

The EU is vigorously pursuing a vision of complete integration into one vast trans-European network. Powered by an initial investment of $500 billion, a futuristic grid of transport, energy, and telecommunications is making Europe one super-efficient playing field for commerce and communication. The EU is funding programs for over a million European students to go to high school in other member countries, and get job training or do volunteer service in another nation. Weak links in the giant free-trade zone — like Portugal and Ireland — are identified and brought up to par with EU money. Today Portugal is laced by new freeways, and Ireland has a higher per capita income than England for the first time in history. Workers in poor regions are getting aid for education and to learn job skills.

English is becoming Europe’s lingua franca. On my last trip, I noticed new signs in airports are now in only one language — English — further uniting Europe and battling the inefficiency that comes with a babble of languages.

The euro currency has also been a huge success. In 2005, €1 is worth about $1.30 (up 40 percent in two years). Monetary discipline is built into the euro system — member nations do not have the option of stoking their economies with big deficit spending. This, coupled with America’s huge and growing deficit, has allowed the euro to challenge the US dollar as the leading global currency. Experts predict that soon, oil-producing countries will be selling their oil in euros, not dollars. (Europe is already the biggest importer of Middle Eastern oil, and Norway and Britain are big oil producers.) This would cause the demand for dollars to decline — further weakening the American economy.

Of course, the news isn’t all good for Europeans. The downside of the euro currency has been serious inflation. While the change-over from the many local currencies to the euro (in 2002) went very smoothly, with it came a huge increase in prices. Italians complain even today that they “earn lire, but spend euros.” Germans claim consumer items nearly doubled overnight. Buying power among average Europeans is down.or at least they feel that way. Yet in the big picture, Europe’s economy as a whole has strengthened with the advent of the euro.

America is slow to grasp the economic might of an emerging Europe in part because we compare ourselves to individual countries rather than to the EU as a whole. The three largest European states (Germany, Britain, and France) each have economies about 50 percent larger than the three largest American states (California, New York, Texas). And Americans, so enamored with Bill Gates and Boeing, don’t notice that the 60 of world’s largest 140 companies are European, while only 50 are American. French-owned Airbus, whose new, mammoth A380 Navigator dwarfs the Boeing 747, has rocketed past Boeing and now controls 75 percent of the global airplane market. Of the world’s 20 largest banks, 14 are European. Three of the top six chemical companies are European. European companies dominate in food, insurance, engineering, construction, and telecommunications. And while America is quick to brag that small businesses are the backbone of its economy, the EU has more — with nearly 70 percent of employment in Europe coming from small and medium businesses (as opposed to less than 50 percent in the US).

In democracies, governments provide for their societies what their electorates expect. In America, government provides a place for capitalism to thrive — following the old adage “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” European governments temper the excesses of capitalism, redistributing wealth so no one is left behind. It’s the will of the people.

Working and Quality of Life

The problem with the American Dream is the growing gap between rich and poor, making success a distant dream for those outside the bubble of wealth.

Europeans produce virtually the same per worker hour as Americans, even though their per capita income is about a third less. Why? They work fewer hours. Europeans prefer to work less, earn less, live more simply, and play more.

When the French government instituted the 35-hour workweek in 1998, it correctly figured that with each worker working fewer hours, there would be a need for more workers, which would in turn alleviate unemployment. The government subsidized companies to pay workers the same for 35 hours as for the previous 39-hour workweek. (This was funded by savings the government enjoyed in unemployment payments.) Employers were skeptical at first about the new seven-hour workday, but they found that happier, more rested workers accomplished virtually as much as they used to in more time. Employers were rewarded with more flexibility to assign workers for weekends or evenings, or to limit vacations to more efficient times. The result is a more relaxed populace. European wives don’t need to constantly remind their workaholic husbands, “Nobody ever went to their grave wishing they’d spent more time working.”

America and Europe approach work differently. America embraced the Protestant work ethic with gusto. In the Industrial Age, we endeavored to get things going “like clockwork.” Nature, once considered God’s creation, became man’s quarry. America took modern concepts like efficiency, money, and production to extremes. People have even come to refer to themselves as machines: geared up, revved up, burned out, overloaded, turned off, connected. For an American, time is money. It’s built into our language: we save it, spend it, waste it. We even bank it. For a European, time is something you enjoy. Italians take it to extremes with their “slow food” movement and famous phrase, il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

Traveling around Europe, I notice that Europeans don’t appreciate efficiency like I do. To them, efficiency turns humans into machines. They ask: “Would you ever treat someone you loved efficiently ?” European parents don’t think in terms of “quality time” — joy, empathy, and caring cannot be done “efficiently.” While Americans strive for happiness by doing, Europeans get it by being.

Let’s look at the numbers. Though the United States and Europe have comparable GDPs (both around $11 trillion), a few things need to be factored in to assess the overall quality of life. GDP figures count the entire economy — productive and non-productive. The United States spends half a trillion dollars ($500 billion) each year on its military (not counting the Iraq War), while Europe spends only $150 billion. The US spends more on legal services and health care. The United States consumes a third more energy. Europe has more doctors per thousand people (3.22 vs. 2.79), while the United States has higher infant mortality and shorter life span. When rated for healthcare fairness among developed nations, the United States was dead last. While the United States spends more per capita than any other nation on health care (over $5,000 per person), we’re one of only two developed nations (with South Africa) that don’t provide health insurance for their citizens. (We have more than 40 million citizens who can’t afford health insurance.) Compared to Europe, the United States has four times the murders per capita. With more than two million Americans in prison (a quarter of the world’s prison population), we have over seven times as many people in prison per capita than Europe.

America clings to the belief that more money and material wealth bring us happiness and the “good life.” But when all of these intangibles are factored into the big picture, you can see why Europeans believe that, while our economies may be roughly equal, their quality of life beats ours.

Equality and Welfare

In the United States, charity is prized as a voluntary, private-sector phenomenon. In re-electing the “tax cuts for the wealthy” economics of the Bush Administration, Americans seem to have embraced the trickle-down notion that, as the rich get richer, they’ll lift the poor with them, caring for others out of the goodness of their hearts. In fact, the presence of millionaires among the poor is seen by some Americans as a motor that drives people to work harder to win the big payoff. The United States has an almost religious respect for the forces of the marketplace, and therefore works to shrink the government’s involvement.

Europeans, on the other hand, see the value of compulsory “charity” in the form of progressive taxation and more social services. While America spends only 11 percent of its GDP on social services, Europe spends a whopping 26 percent. While elements of Europe’s cradle to grave security are being rolled back and many Europeans are concerned about bloated and wasteful government programs, they still trust their governments to help them look out for their neighbors and the rest of the world. Europeans believe that if the government doesn’t intervene against unrestrained capitalism, greed will prevail, wealthy people will thrive, and the poor will multiply. This is bad news if you want to become a multi-millionaire in Europe. But for the other 99-plus percent of people, such social equality is much appreciated.

Europe legislates income equality. When measuring income equality of the world’s 26 richest industrialized nations, the top 18 countries are all European. In the dirty derby of income inequality, the Untied States is outdone only by Mexico and Russia. And, with recent political trends against progressive taxation and estate taxes, Americans are scrambling to do even worse. While the typical high-income earner in the United States earns over five times that of the low-wage earner, by the same measure in Europe the ratio is 3 to 1.

America’s minimum wage is 40 percent of the average wage; in Europe, it’s about 55 percent of the average wage. In the United States, unemployment benefits and employment benefits are relatively weak. The United States is one of only three industrialized nations that doesn’t require paid maternity or paternity leave (even unpaid), while in most of Europe, a three-month leave with full salary is standard.

Most Americans are comfortable with the “sink or swim” approach. Seventy percent of Americans believe the rich are rich because they’re smarter and work harder, and the poor are poor because they’re slackers; only 40 percent of Europeans would agree. We also believe government aid doesn’t make much of a long-term difference. No American politician interested in getting elected makes fighting poverty his crusade.

Europe spends more on social services not merely to help the poor, but to enrich their society’s quality of life. While politics in the traditional nation-state mold deals primarily with government and the economy, Europe also stresses civil society — religion, arts, environment, human rights, education, health, and ethnic sub-cultures. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), which represent these aspects of a society (school groups, doctors’ societies, church organizations, environmental groups, and so on), are the new kid on the political block, and are struggling for a place at the table. Europe understands that as multinational corporations are becoming more powerful than governments (even enforcing their will on them, with organizations like the IMF and World Bank), the governments will need the support of CSOs to remain a player.

The Military

Ponder the fact that France (with a quarter of our population) lost as many people in a single day during World War I as the US did in the entire Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine the depth of the scars of war Europe lives with. And yet today, the Irish toss darts with the English, Serbs vacation in Dubrovnik, and Germans enjoy the beaches of Holland (careful never to ask directions to the “old town” in Rotterdam ). Many Europeans consider the best thing about the EU to be how it streamlines the various nations’ armies into one single peacekeeping force. Europeans, long masters of warfare, are now pacifists. And their pacifism is something that is driving the creation of the EU.

Whether it’s part of the “American Dream” or just the hard reality, the United States spends vastly more on its military than the EU. In fact, we spend nearly as much as the rest of the world combined, including 80 percent of the world’s total military research-and-development spending. Meanwhile, since World War II, 75 percent of the world’s on-the-ground peacekeeping forces have been Europeans. This means that the US has taken on a greater responsibility when it comes to international military actions. Standard operating procedure has become “the United States does the cooking, and the EU does the dishes.” This trend is likely to continue as European nations consider essentially abolishing their armies and American politicians are learning it’s hard to get elected without promising to spend more on the military.

The Environment

Environmentalism is a basic foundation of the European Union. Europeans treasure nature as a number one priority, and their protection of it is taken to extremes unimaginable in the United States. In their everyday lives, they willingly put up with major inconveniences for the environment.

Huge festivals are held with no disposable cups. Europe’s toilets have heavy and light flush options. You can’t lock modern hotel room doors without taking your key out of an electricity slot, which turns off all the lights in the room. Escalators work only when people are on them. Entire communities are well on their way to becoming entirely wind-powered. Conserving energy and finding clean, non-fossil-fuel alternatives is a matter of ethics in Europe. Seventy percent of Europeans believe that damage to the environment is a serious and immediate problem, while only 25 percent of Americans agree.

On a societal level, big corporations must prove that their products are safe and pay for recycling costs. Regardless of how profitable an activity may be, it’s not allowed in Europe if it compromises the environment. Judging from the rarity of gas guzzlers on the European road, high gas taxes effectively discourage wasteful consumption.

Europe’s Green Party — which is on the political fringe in the United States — is well-represented in local and national European governments. Europe has championed many major international environmental treaties, such as the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, which the Bush administration has rejected. Sure, Europeans have paid the price — bearing the high cost of environmental regulations — but they figure it’s worth it.

In the 19th century, a coal-powered Britain led the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, the United States — powered by oil and the internal-combustion engine — dominated the world. Today Europe is committed to a fully integrated, renewable, hydrogen-based economy by 2050.

American companies are suddenly realizing that their biggest and most affluent market — nearly half a billion Europeans — is embracing new standards that make our cars, cosmetics, and chemicals out of bounds unless we meet their far higher standards. Europe’s new environment and safety standards must be met if the America’s $500 billion chemical industry is able to compete in the European market. The US chemical industry, along with the US government, has suddenly begun lobbying very energetically in Brussels to change this — but with no real success. Europeans strongly believe that their regulatory policies should be driven by the people’s needs rather than corporate need. One might conclude that, as American corporations continue their drive for profit at the expense of the environment, Americans are becoming second-class citizens in regard to chemical and environmental safety.

Human Rights

The European Union’s new constitution, which is now being debated and fine-tuned for ratification by its member states, crystallizes the new European Dream. It gives the EU power to sign treaties, and establishes a foreign minister empowered to conduct a single foreign and defense policy. The challenge is a complex dance: letting smaller states have power, without ending the dominance of the bigger states.

The 250-page document borrows much from the US Constitution, but it’s also peppered with ideas foreign to the American way of government. There is absolutely no mention of God, beyond a mild reference to “our religious inheritance.” Rather than championing private property, the EU constitution promotes sustainable development, fairness, protection of the environment, peace, social justice, women’s rights, children’s rights, and even animal rights.

The constitution’s forte is human rights. Its writers declared upon unveiling it, “Of all the people in the world, Europeans have the most extensive human rights.” These rights include no death penalty, the right to privacy, the right to access of data about yourself, the right to join trade unions, to get an education (including vocational and continuing education), the right to diversity (cultural, religious, and linguistic — all discrimination is prohibited), the right to paid maternity leave, housing, health care, to a protected environment, and even the right to an annual paid vacation!

Europe’s is the first constitution to recognize rights beyond its boundaries — global rights of people and environment. The language is universalistic, directed at all humankind and the entire planet. It presents a global vision of peace, sustainable development, respecting diversity, human rights, environmental protection, and fairness — not to mention fun and quality of life. As they contribute to a growing global consciousness everywhere, the people of Europe recognize that many of their biggest problems don’t recognize borders.

Europeans will be the first to admit that their new constitution is idealistic and overshoots what is enforceable. But millions are working hard to make it a reality.

Europe’s Two-edged Challenge: Rising Immigration, Aging Population

While it’s easy to get caught up in the European Dream, Europe is not all peche and crème. Two major problems facing Europe are how it treats its immigrant population and how the EU’s ethnic European population is both shrinking and growing older.

Rather than assimilating into a “melting pot” like in the United States, today’s immigrant groups are now parts of diasporas: cultural groups who roam the planet but stay connected. Tapping into easy global communications and cheap travel, they have no interest in melting into the land they now call home. Within the world’s 200 nations, ethnographers have identified about 2,000 ethnic groups. Their “homeland” is not their physical residence but their shared customs, language, religion, and traditions. Communities of Tunisians in Paris, Pakistanis in Norway, and Brazilians in Portugal are not about to dissolve into those cultures.

Probably the most pervasive cultural issue Europe faces right now is the rampant and ever-increasing tide of anti-immigration, anti-Semitism, and anti-Islam. Some of it is simply the tensions of assimilating a new culture into an old one — Turkish guest workers in Germany, Algerian Muslims in France, black Africans from former colonies in Portugal.

In France, they’re debating (bitterly) whether to allow Muslim girls to wear their traditional headgear to schools that have standard dress codes. Would banning the scarves be enforcing democracy... or squelching diversity? In the Netherlands, a prominent filmmaker — Theo Van Gogh, the artist’s great-grandnephew — was killed on the street, apparently for making a movie criticizing Islam.

Throwing gas on the fire are politicians who capitalize on — frankly — racist attitudes. Thanks to this latent strain in Europe, right-wingers with an anti-immigrant stance (such as France’s Jean Le Pen) do surprisingly well in election after election.

If you study the demographics, it seems Europe is becoming an old folks’ home. While American politicians fret about reforming Social Security, Europe is doubly worried. By 2050, its population will have dropped by 13 percent, a third of all Europeans will be over 60, and the median age of Europe will be 57 (compared to 35 in the United States ). Governments are combating Europe’s very low birth rate with incentives such as tax breaks for having kids. But, not surprisingly, cool and comfy European DINKs (double income, no kids) are not about to have children just for a tax break. Young Europeans are organizing into “groups for generational justice.” With fewer working people each year, the EU simply can’t support the swelling older ranks of Europeans expecting early and comfortable retirements. Something has to give.

Europe is in a bind. With a stagnant and even dropping indigenous population and floods of immigrants, its make-up and ethnicity is changing. Without immigration, the Continent will depopulate, and the European Dream will wilt rather than flourish. The big challenge for the Europeans is keeping its population up and incorporate its immigrants constructively into a vision of the future that brings fairness and justice to all. How Europe handles its demographic challenges remains to be seen.


In his book, The Euopean Dream, Jeremy Rifkin writes that in medieval times, faith was the glue that kept society together. In the modern age, it was reason. Europe has concluded that in the global future, it must be empathy.

Today 450 million people have EU citizenship. Think of the accomplishment after a thousand years of killing. The visionary leaders of the European Dream, along with legions of Eurocrats in Brussels, are fostering a new political system that favors negotiation over ultimatums and cooperation over competition. Its plodding bureaucracy can seem clumsy and almost laughable at times. But as an alternative to another devastating war every generation or two, it’s a brilliant vision. The EU’s power grows not by expanding sovereignty but by broadening cooperation. America still has the “hard power” (economic and military muscle), but its “soft power” — the cultural and moral inspiration, optimism, and ingenuity that so many emulated for so long — may be ebbing.

The European Union has a vision of a prosperous continent at peace that includes all, celebrates diversity, respects universal human rights, enjoys a high but sustainable quality of life, protects the environmental rights, and has lots of fun. And 450 million Europeans see it as a model not limited to their continent, and possibly providing a better future for all humankind.

I’m not saying that America needs to emulate Europe. But we may be unwise not to see the extraordinary dynamic unfolding across the Atlantic — much as Europe underestimated the emergence of America after 1789. America’s biggest error may be in not taking Europe seriously. We would be wise to keep an eye on what the EU is doing, respect it, and learn from it. And by keeping that in mind on your next trip, your travels will give you an insight into one of the most exciting yet unnoticed developments of our time.