Like all serious disputes over politico-economic models, argument between Europe and America has over the last decade revolved not only around who is right and who is wrong but also about who represents the future or the past.
Around the turn of the century, the U.S. looked much more dynamic than a weak and stagnant Europe that was somehow out of tune with the rest of the world. But five years later, after Iraq, Europe seemed to many to offer a more sustainable model that was much more attractive than bible-thumping, gun-toting, gas-guzzling, oil-spilling America.
Today’s phase of general malaise hangs over both, summed up by the decline of the West and the rise of the rest. But there is still an on-going debate about whether it is Europe or America that is declining the faster. And this is where Walter Laqueur comes in; he’s a well-known analyst of terrorism and a notably eurosceptic chronicler of post-war Europe, and his latest book argues that while America may still have a future, Europe is doomed. For proof he points to Europe’s economic troubles, its ageing population, an inability to cope with immigration and the return of nationalist instincts. Above all, Laqueur contends that Europe’s predictable decline is due to its rejection of classical notions of power and widespread reluctance to fight for principles, something clearly reflected in Europe’s dwindling national defence budgets.
The trouble with Laqueur’s book is not its message. The current crisis is widely acknowledged to have revealed the weaknesses in the European model, even if they are precisely the same things that in past decades were celebrated as strengths. These range from multiculturalism to the hype surrounding “civilian power”, and there’s no denying that Europe could now do with a strong dose of realism. The problem is that Laqueur’s rambling style and sloppiness with detail makes it too easy for europhiles to shrug off his arguments. European Council meetings are not “conferences”, members of the European External Action Service do not get 15 weeks of paid vacation per year, and the Lisbon treaty was signed in 2007, not 2009. These are not trifles, for they show that the author has trouble understanding the admittedly arcane ways of the European Union. Those who belittle Europe’s structural problems, and who still cultivate a sense of schadenfreude about America’s predicament, will only start listening to warnings from elsewhere if these are better documented and presented.
After the Fall – The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent by Walter Laqueur, Thomas Dunne Books, 2012, 336 pp. (ISBN 125 0 00008 4)