Sign Up

An American Looks at Europe

What aspirations do young Europeans have for the future of their continent?

June 17, 2005

What aspirations do young Europeans have for the future of their continent?

We Americans like to vacation there. Around every corner, we experience some token of our past. Many of us still have deep roots in Europe.

It's like being in a giant outdoor museum — full of treasures and memories, some horrifying, others noble.

It feels good visiting the "Old World." The smells are more intimate. The details of life are more painstakingly cared for.
What could be more enjoyable than a stroll along the Rhine River in Basel in the early summer evening, while watching young men and women and whole families floating along the swift current of the water in their inner tubes?
Or escaping from the winter frost into a warm and dimly lit sanctuary of a 14th-century church in a hill town in Provence? Great memories.

But when it comes to the "real world" of making a living, of income and expenditures, of investments and returns, Americans do not pay all that much attention to the comings and goings in Europe.
We Americans generally prefer to keep our economic sights on the East — to Japan and the Southeast Asian tiger countries.

In particular, American businesspeople have turned an eye toward China, convinced that its vast resources, population, educational skills and drive likely make it the next great economic power.

While Americans look to the Pacific and Asian economies for signs of quickening competition and greater commercial opportunities, a quiet economic revolution of a different sort is taking place in the land of our European forebears, of which we know very little — and to which we are ill prepared to respond.
Americans are vaguely aware that new economic and political realities are emerging in Europe but, when pressed, are unable to say exactly what they are.

We know that there is now a common currency across much of Europe and that we no longer have to make anxious — and often misinformed — split-second calculations on how much the local currency is worth in dollars, as we did before the introduction of the euro.
At the same time, we Americans are still conditioned by our memory of the old Europe as a composite of thousands of once walled cities and surrounding country sides nested inside dozens of rigidly marked-off national boundaries, in a kind of tight mosaic of borders touching up against borders.

The old Europe felt tight, even claustrophobic, for Americans used to enjoying what we call "breathing room."

Americans still think of the European Union as little more than a free-trade zone of sorts, something like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — but more advanced. We're mistaken. It's much more.
The tug between Europe and America goes even deeper than questions of personal opportunity and quality of life.
What really distinguishes the comings and goings in Europe and America today is that Europe is busy preparing for a new era, while America is desperately trying to hold on to the old one.

There is a sense of new possibilities across Europe. To be sure, the feeling varies somewhat in intensity from country to country and region to region and even between young and old.
There are also significant pockets of resistance to a transnational political space. The French and Dutch rejection of the EU Constitution is a powerful reminder that Europe has a long way to go to become a fully integrated economic and political space.

But beware of first impressions, especially when it comes to European political debate. Yes, the French and Dutch public have dealt a mighty blow to the prospect of a binding constitution for all of Europe, at least for now.

Much of the 'no' vote, especially in France, was motivated more by frustration and anger over domestic political and economic issues. The referendum on the EU Constitution, in effect, provided an opportunity to vent public rage against the policies of national leaders.
Few Europeans seriously entertain the idea of abandoning the European Union and returning to the older geopolitics of each country going it alone. That is not to say that there isn't concern about the direction the EU is headed in and how best to integrate the economic, political and cultural affairs of the European continent.
We need to keep in mind that it took America nearly 100 years, and eventually a bloody civil war, before our own national constitution was fully accepted by the citizens of very diverse and often differing states. Patience is the name of the game.

What is not in doubt is that Europeans, in particular the younger generation, are struggling to establish a new European Dream they hope will be more compatible with the opportunities and challenges of a globalizing world.
Despite all the problems — and there are many — one still gets the sense that Europeans know they are creating something new and bold and that the whole world is watching them.

If I were to sum it up, I would say that Europe has become a giant freewheeling experimental laboratory for rethinking the human condition and reconfiguring human institutions in the global era.

Many observers — especially Americans — view the developments in Europe with whimsy or disdain or, worse still, indifference.
The hard-line cynics are even less charitable, seeing the efforts afoot to create a "United States" of Europe as quixotic and ultimately futile.
European critics voiced similar reservations about our own experiment in forging a United States of America more than 200 years ago. They proved wrong then — and I suspect we will be proved wrong this time around.

Adapted from “The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream” by Jeremy Rifkin © Penguin 2004.