Europe’s Crisis of Confidence

Old Europe is in something of an identity crisis. The specter of European federalism coupled with a widespread unease about Muslim immigration has many Europeans wondering about their nationhood and what it means to be “European” anyway. The financial meltdown and subsequent recession further fractured an already fragile self-image.

Foreign immigration and decades of post-colonial guilt and self-delusion in the name of cultural relativism cast doubt upon European values of equality. It is not-done to speak of Western civilization as superior today for there is supposedly no objective standard according to which cultures may be judged. Not everyone agrees which unfortunately leaves the great political divide in many parts of Europe between the cosmopolitan left that threatens to undermine the very foundations of Western prosperity and the nationalists on the right who speak of Western tradition to justify their fears of the future and the unknown.

The economic downturn has shaken Europe’s welfare states to the core meanwhile, forcing governments all over the continent to severely cut on social security programs. Poverty is on the rise while decades of government caretaking have undermined peoples’ sense of personal responsibility.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, France’s national ombudsman, is weary of people who think of themselves not as citizens but increasingly as consumers of the state. France, he said in mid-February, “is a fragmenting society, where an attitude of everybody-out-for-themselves is replacing the desire to live together.”

Although the country is the most socialist of EU member states with individual liberties greatly curtailed by the pervasive presence of the state in nearly all economic activity, the French people, apparently, still refuse to sympathize with state-imposed solidarity. Instead, massive government expenditures and welfare spending have given rise to an entitlement mentality with people expecting the government to address any perceived ill in their lives or in society at large.

Such a situation, according to German Foreign Minister Guide Westerwelle, is unsustainable. “Whoever promises the people the good life without effort,” he warned, “is making an invitation to late-Roman decadence.”

Unfortunately, in many countries, policymakers remain convinced that the solution is just a little more government control. In spite of mounting deficits and rampant unemployment, Spain insists on continuing to flirt with socialism. In Greece, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, the state has gone on spending well beyond its means in spite of the financial crisis, leaving all of Europe to worry about record debts. But in France, President Nicholas Sarkozy blissfully attacks what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of recent years. He hopes to demonstrate the success of the European approach which, according to Sarkozy, “has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.”

Oh, good.

Capitalism, in fact, is at the heart of European culture. It was capitalism that elevated parts of the continent from centuries of backwardness and depravity to allow growth and progress to take shape. It was capitalism, with its emphasis on individual accomplishment, freedom of enterprise and the protection of property rights, that gave rise to an age of abundance of wealth and wellbeing.

Notions of racial superiority unfortunately took hold of Europe as it established itself as the dominant force on Earth. In more recent years, such bigotry has been proven false but with it, too often, the very values that made Europe supreme are denied as well.