Saturday, January 28, 2012

The future of Europe: A declinist’s case

January 28, 2012

A distinguished European historian who now lives and works in America, Walter Laqueur has turned into a leading prophet of European decline. His new book, After the Fall, stands as a summary of many pet themes: that the European Union has a weak economy with too lavish a welfare state and little capacity for reform, a shrinking population and, worst of all, too many Muslim immigrants.

Mr Laqueur makes many telling points. The euro crisis (which, like most observers, he did not foresee) has laid bare many of the continent’s economic ills. It has confirmed the insouciance of Mediterranean countries, in particular, over the urgent need to improve their competitiveness. Europe’s demographic outlook is worrying, with an ageing population dependent on a shrinking workforce—a picture that gets worse as one moves eastward. And no European country has been a shining success at assimilating immigrants, especially (but not only) from Muslim countries.

Yet overall the author’s gloom is still excessive. Europe’s economic performance over the past decade has not been appreciably worse than America’s, for example. Although it has a few basket-case countries, it also has (in Scandinavia and Germany, for instance) some of the world’s strongest and most competitive economies. Moreover, the euro crisis is leading to more extensive reforms to repair battered public finances, increase liberalisation and bolster competition than would have seemed possible a few years ago.

A bigger objection is the book’s repeated and excessive stress on the supposedly damaging effects of Muslim immigration. Mr Laqueur stops short of subscribing to the worst fears of “Eurabia” once fashionable in right-wing American circles. But he overstates Islam’s spread (there are perhaps 20m Muslims in Europe, just 4% of its current population of 500m). And he is surely wrong when he argues that Muslims will not assimilate, that sharia law may become widespread or that large parts of many European cities will come to resemble north Africa. An ageing continent needs immigrants. Moreover, both Turkey (which Mr Laqueur mostly traduces) and the Arab spring (which he barely mentions) suggest that reform and liberal democracy can, albeit with difficulties and arguments along the way, be made compatible with Islam.


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