Sign Up

Is California in Europe?

Would the state of California do better as part of the European Union?

July 23, 2002

Would the state of California do better as part of the European Union?

Many parts of the United States are supposedly out of sync with the rest of the country. New York City has famously been described — by its admirers and detractors alike — as another country (if not another planet).

Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, is often referred to as "inside the beltway" — as though passing through the capital's ring road brought one to another place, and certainly another way of thinking.

Texas — originally an independent republic — is seen by many of its patriotic native sons as a special case. But, surprisingly, California may be the least American — and most European — of all 50 U.S. states.

California has a long history of European settlement — from the initial Spanish presence in 1540 to the Russian settlement at Fort Ross in 1812. Thus, the state had a pretty extensive history of European settlement before becoming the 31st American state in 1850.

California: Isolation and connection

While the Gold Rush of 1849 hastened its incorporation into the United States, California remained isolated for many decades thereafter, lying on the other side of a vast and treacherous continent. Only the advent of transcontinental rail travel and the building of the Panama Canal firmly connected the state with the rest of the country.

Yet, even in the Great Depression in the 1930s, Midwestern farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl for California were filled with wonder, as though they had arrived in a foreign country.

World's fifth-largest economy

Even today, California is not just the greatest and most populous of American states. It is still a country of its own — and an enormous one.

In 2000, it nudged ahead of France as the world's fifth-largest economy. Los Angeles County alone would have been the 16th-largest economy in the world.

Of course, not many people in California would want it to secede. It's not just the memories of the U.S. Civil War that prevent such ideas. What is more quintessentially American than California?

When foreigners think of the United States, California is the state that first comes to mind: surfing, open roads, Haight Ashbury, Hollywood, Beach Boys, Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson. Even more than New York City, California has become the great American melting pot, where white, black, Asians and Latin Americans mingle in nearly equal proportion.

All great American trends are said to start in California and only then spread to the rest of the country. And, for sure, Los Angeles — a city without sidewalks — is a place that least resembles a city in the traditional European sense of the word.

Belonging in Europe

Yet, in one important respect, California is similar to Europe. It is its politics. Unlike the rest of the United States, where ideology seems non-existent, California has produced plenty of radicals both on the right and the left of the ideological spectrum.

From former Governor Jerry Brown to the John Birch Society, California politics has been marked by a surprising (for the United States) willingness to avoid the pragmatism that marks politics in the rest of the country.

Politics aside, another feature of California life distinguishes the state from the rest of the country. That is the belief in the enlightened role of the government.

From roads to parks, Californians have always expected government to play a key role in their lives. And California has always taken pride in the best network of state universities in the United States. Some—notably Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD—are among the top schools and research institutions in the world.

Geographically far — but ideologically close

That explains why California is blazing a new path in standing up to car manufacturers. While gas guzzling cars have become a religion in the United States, California has long had highly restrictive emission standards.

Now it is essentially taking steps to ensure that the state of California will do its part to halt global warming — even as the rest of the country dismisses the problem.

Ultimately, California's energy policies are closer to the conservationist model adopted by Western European governments than to the produce-and-waste school that prevails elsewhere in the United States.

That comparison suggests that California is more similar to Western Europe — and its Social Democratic traditions — than to the rest of the United States.

California in Europe?

Imagine if California were located in Europe. It would be the third-largest economy in the European Union. Although only about two-thirds the size of Germany, California's GDP — at $1.35 trillion — would put it within striking distance of the United Kingdom.

Because of its technological prowess and entrepreneurial pizzazz, its role in the euro-zone would be even greater, making it a natural counterweight to Germany.

In fact, to some it might seem that the only time California gets itself into real trouble is when it betrays its Social Democratic traditions — and lets itself be seduced by the unbridled free market capitalism practiced elsewhere in the United States.

The energy crisis, which hit the state in 2000-2001, is a case in point. California was taken to the cleaners to the tune of billions of dollars by the likes of Enron and similar "cowboy capitalists". Perhaps the state would be better off, after all, submitting an application to join the EU.