INTRODUCTION: Europe's Three Crises

By Richards, John; Milner, Henry | Inroads, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

INTRODUCTION: Europe's Three Crises

Richards, John, Milner, Henry, Inroads

THE DEADLY BOMBING OF MADRID TRAINS ON MARCH 11 IS THE MOST VISIBLE symbol thus far of several crises that have converged to shake European self-confidence.

Foremost among these crises is the eruption in the lives of bourgeois Europeans of the seething discontent in the Muslim world. Pious militant Muslims have challenged French republican traditions of laïcité, prompting legislation to ban the wearing of religious symbols in schools. Criticism of Israel (by Muslim and nonMuslim leaders) now veers into antiSemitism; synagogues in France have been burned. A survey of Muslims in Britain concluded that one in eight thought future Al Qaeda attacks on America would be justified. London police recently captured large quantities of bomb-making materials. Islamic militancy has been disrupting life in the usually calm cities of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Another crisis, less traumatic but important, is the unresolved tension over the future of the European Union (EU). At one extreme are the federalists who believe the logic of history calls for the EU to evolve into a superpower able to counter unipolar U.S. hegemony. At the other extreme are the Eurosceptics who view the Union as a pragmatic free trade arrangement devoid of supernational aspirations. Debates over the proposed EU constitution and the position in it of the ten new Eastern European members have brought this crisis to the fore.

From Sweden to Italy, continental Europeans enjoy the world's most generous social programs. To date, these welfare states have generated prosperous, relatively egalitarian societies. But ...

The welfare state has given birth to a third crisis. As the European population ages and the birth rate remains low, demographic projections imply an inexorably rising ratio of non-taxpaying older people to taxpaying workers. Over the last two decades, European electorates have resisted increases in tax rates, while at the same time rejecting politicians proposing to curtail public services, bargain aggressively with public sector unions or impose user fees. The combination of these demographic and political realities has placed France and Germany in the embarrassing position of violating the Maastricht Treaty's deficit rules - rules on which they had insisted as preconditions for the credibility of the euro. Without major changes in the structure of European social services, far worse fiscal imbalance looms over the coming decade.

These three crises are intimately interwoven. Thus, the demand to join the EU by Turkey, a large Muslim country, entails the first and second. The British, who tend to view the EU as a trade arrangement, support Turkey's application. The French aspire to lead a politically integrated Europe, are traumatized by the rise of politicized Islam within France, and view Turkey as yet another impediment to furthering political union among core EU members.

Unemployment among Muslim immigrants illustrates the interweaving of the first with the third crisis. The generosity of European welfare states attracts immigrants, including many Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East. Concentrated in poor, ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods, often with poor-quality schools, children of these immigrants often fail to achieve the education levels required to earn reasonable incomes. Consequently, they suffer high unemployment - above 25 per cent in many European countries - and disproportionately rely on social assistance and public housing. The combination of a deep cultural cleavage and chronic unemployment creates recruits for politicized Islamic movements. In reaction, many "old-stock" Europeans have come to embrace the anti-immigration politics of the political right.

The first and second crises

These crises and their interrelationship are far too complex for our section on Europe to survey comprehensively. However, individual articles shed light on aspects of the crises and how Europeans are grappling with them. …

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