In a startling briefing to trade union chiefs in Europe in June, EU President Jose Manuel Barroso reportedly warned of a possible collapse of democracy in the debt-ridden southern countries of Europe and reversion to military dictatorship. The comments, reported by John Monks, head of the EU’s main labor union lobby, would constitute a shocking admission of the severity of the economic problems plaguing Europe, all the more so coming from Barroso, who is himself the former prime minister of Portugal and presumably knows his countrymen.
Those following the news in Europe know that soaring interest rates, collapsing government services, and governments out of money and borrowing ability have been accompanied by street demonstrations, often violent, which unions have organized to protest austerity measures.
It has long been common for ivory tower academics to point to Europe as a more “progressive” political economy, where freedom and prosperity coincide with a high level of social safety programs and generous vacation allowances.
It is now becoming clearer to all that this was never really true. European au pairs would brag to their American host families about their free colleges and health care, but would stock up on blue jeans before their return trip. Those programs were never free, and the exorbitant taxes Europeans paid on consumer products were of course the reason they went on shopping sprees in America. And when it was necessary to get a serious education, or an important surgical procedure performed, they came here for that too.
Now we can see that their high level of taxation didn’t quite pay for all those benefits. Turns out that much of the tab was passed down to later generations. Recently, tens of thousands of Frenchmen took to the streets of Paris to protest a proposal to move the retirement age to 62 from 60. Libert?, egalit?, fraternit?…absurdit?. And that’s the thing of it. Europe Inc. is going under because what has long been unsustainable can finally no longer be sustained.
As our own country nears its 234th birthday, Americans should consider our historic differences with Europe — and our current convergence. It has been pointed out that post-crisis demonstrations in the U.S. have had a markedly different character than transatlantic protests. Over there, the protesters have turned out against spending cuts and austerity measures. Here, the biggest demonstrations have been to oppose government spending.
This Fourth of July, we ought to reflect on what it means to be an American, and remember our patriotic forebears who nurtured and defended a unique way of life that has blessed so many with freedom and prosperity. If all we do is have a barbeque then we’ve truly gotten soft, and Barroso’s warning could in a matter of years apply to us.