Walter Laqueur:
"The Last Days of Europe" (Dunne, 2007)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The distinguished historian Walter Laqueur, who has written more than 20 books on various subjects of European history since 1962, has a pessimistic view of Europe, that he sees in the middle of an identity crisis. That crisis has been caused by two parallel processes: an aging population created by falling birthrate, and an uncontrolled immigration. These two processes have changed and are still changing the demographic mix of European countries. Furthermore, the immigrants have not integrated and are not integrating. Laqueur speaks of "self-ghettoization". They refuse and even despise the culture of the host country.

The concomitant forces of population decrease (if one does not consider the immigrants and children of immigrants) and mass immigration are well known, and a child can draw the conclusion that the Europe of the future will have significantly different values than the Europe of the past. Like many other analyses of this kind, Laqueur's book fails to explain why the USA is so different from Europe, in both respects. The birthrate in the USA is higher than in China and India. Immigrants integrate very well. Every statistic shows that Muslims are much better integrated in the USA (by far the most hated country in the Islamic world) than in France or Britain. Laqueur's book focuses on the effects (decreasing population and mass immigration) but not on the causes.

It is likely that the causes are one: the wonderful welfare system created since World War II by the European countries. That system is mostly the crowning achievement of western civilization, protecting each and every individual by just about every possible disaster (whether old age, illness, accident or unemployment). A first problem is that this system encourages people to immigrate even when they feel no particular attraction for the culture; and it reduces the motivation to integrate in the society. In the USA the exact opposite happens: the system that encourages people to immigrate is not the guarantee that someone will pay your bills but the opportunity that hard work brings you. Immigrants flock to Europe in order to be "assisted". The worst that can happen to them is that they will be deported back to their home countries (with an air ticket paid by the host country's taxpayers). Basically, there is no need to "integrate". You can be an immigrant without integrating. On the contrary, immigrants to the USA know that the government will not take care of them if they fail. Immigrants to the USA "must" integrate. The USA is certainly a more cruel society. But it does motivate immigrants to adapt and succeed. It motivates them to leave behind the traditions of their country, to get a secular education for their children, to learn English. The immigrants to the USA are also self-ghettoized: they still watch soccer on the Mexican channel or listen to the news of the Arab channel; they still go to the Muslim mosque every friday and they still wear Indian saris. Without one generation, though, they are fully "americanized": blue jeans, coca cola, techno and suit and tie. Statistics show that immigrants tend to do a lot better in the USA after just one generation than anywhere in Europe. (The USA suffered one Islamic terrorist attack, but the perpetrators had to come from Europe). That is one important reason for why immigrants integrate better in the USA than in Europe. The ones who do not succeed, or the ones who remain attached to the values of their home country, tend to go back. In Europe they do not go back: they try to change their neighborhood in France or Britain so it that it looks like their country. The USA changes the immigrants, while the immigrants change Europe.

The same cause is responsible, to some extent, for the decline in fertility. Since ancient times, the main motivation to have children (many children) was to create your own insurance policy against disaster and old age. Out of so many children at least one will succeed and support the rest of the family, including yourself. Raising children is a long-term investment, but, ultimately, an investment. In the welfare state, however, you don't need children: the state will take care of you. Therefore one big reason to make children has disappeared. Children are certainly a cost (both in money and time) but not necessarily a gain. The return on investment is dubious and, in any case, not indispensable (you will survive even without the support of your children). The real investment with a return is the taxes that you pay to the government, in exchange for which the government guarantees to take care of you in bad times (exactly the function that children had in the old days).

In the USA the safety net provided by the government is much more limited. Even if children rarily take care of their parents, the idea that government has taken over the role of "family's insurance policy" does not exist. This has left the primordial role of family intact.

There is another side effect of the welfare systen. The welfare system seems to take away the enthusiasm of living. People come to rely so much on the welfare system that they lose the motivation to excel. Compared with the USA and the Far East, there is a general lack of enthusiasm in Europe, especially among the younger generations (that were raised in the best welfare system of all times). They seem to live only for one purpose: to age. They are basically waiting to reach retirement age so they can get their pension from the government. And, while they wait, they expect the government to provide them with a job and a career, and a job whose main feature is the number of vacation and sick days they can take. Relatively few of them expect nothing from the government and are excited about creating their own future. This contrasts dramatically with the USA, where elderly people are still very active and looking for jobs, even when they don't need money. The welfare system levels the field in an admirable way that reduces the advantage of being rich and the disadvantage of being poor, but somehow it is the wealth gap of the USA, where so many extremely rich people live next door to so many poor people, that motivates people to be enthusiastic about working and, ultimately, living. That enthusiasm of living translates into children. The European apathy for life translates into no children.

Laqueur mentions the dismal projects for the European population, but does not mention the projection for the USA population: it is projected to grow to more than 400 millions by 2050, a 46% increase that competes with Indonesia's and Bangladesh's rates. Given that the USA and Europe share the same system of (Christian capitalist democratic) values, it is stunning that one's population is growing so rapidly while the other's population is declining.

It is not a coincidence that the family is disintegrating much faster in Europe than in the USA. The number of unmarried couples (with and without children) is higher in Europe than in the USA. The government has replaced the family as the fundamental unit of support. In the USA that process has not happened.

Thus the welfare system of Europe might be the cause of the two effects that this book analyzes: falling birthrates and mass immigration.

Back to Laqueur's book, he starts out by outlining the decandence of Europe in the 1990s. This is as much a myth as the "economic miracle" of the 1960s. In the 1960s the economic boom was largely due to the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union that fostered massive investment by the superpowers into their colonies of respectively Western and Eastern Europe. Without the help of the USA, there would have been no economic miracle in Western Europe, a continent left in ruins by World War II. The only miracle in Europe was the Soviet Union, for the brief time that it lasted, but that's another story.

The decadence is also a wild exaggeration. Laqueur assumes that Europe is no longer competitive, a much repeated mantra. However, Germany has always been among the top three exporters of the world and, as of 2006, it is the number one exporter in the world, ahead of both Japan, China and the USA. It is amazing that so many scholars call this "lack of competitiveness". Given the extremely high wages and benefits and cost of living in Germany, the only way to explain this "export miracle" is to admit that Germany is much more competitive than the USA, Japan and China.

Secondly, as of 2007, the euro is the strongest currency in the world. It takes a major stretch of imagination to describe a strong currency as a sign of decadence.

Thirdly, Laqueur writes that the European did not catch up with the USA. It did. Their GDPs in 2006 were both 13 trillion. Sure: Europe had to expand by tens of millions of people in order to catch up. Nonetheless it is a fact that it did. And in 2007 it is not clear who is growing faster, the USA or the European Union. We do know who owes more money: the USA has the largest trade deficit ever recorded in history, one of the largest budget deficits in the world, and the highest household debt in the world. When one goes over all the economic indicators, the only one that looks really bad in Europe is unemployment (which, yet again, may stem from the welfare system).

The real argument is that Europe's "non-ethnic" population (i.e., Caucasian and Christian) is rapidly declining. That is unquestionable. Because ageing societies tend to make fewer children, this is becoming a vicious loop that very soon will be impossible to reverse. If one excluses immigration, the population of European countries will collapse. The projections are (as quoted in the book) that by 2050 France will have 55 million people, Britain 45, Germany 61, Italy 37, Spain 28. Russia will decline 22%, Ukraine 43%. At the same time the population of Europe's neighbors (North Africa and the Middle East) will boom: Egypt 114 million, Turkey 100 million, Algeria 45 million, Morocco 45 million. A country such as Pakistan will have more people than the entire European Union A small country such as Yemen will have as many people as Russia, the largest country in the world. Barring the creation of a colossal wall encircling Europe on all sides, this demographic imbalance will certainly affect immigration. A vast underpopulated continent with a high living standard is an obvious magnet for poor immigrants of nearby overpopulated regions. The imbalance will just become too great: on one hand an underpopulated and extremely wealthy Europe; on the other hand an overpopulated and extremely poor North Africa and Middle East. Legally or illegally, a transfusion of people will be inevitable.

Laqueur does not emphasize that today's immigration moves only one way: not many Europeans emigrate to North Africa or the Middle East. Therefore those societies are not only growing rapidly but are also remaining ethnically "pure". In 2050 France will have 55 million people of which only half will be Caucasians and Christians, whereas Egypt will have 114 million people almost all of which will be Arabs and Muslims. The European societies are not only shrinking: they are also becoming much more divided.

It may not be peaceful. Laqueur does not mention the fact that, presumably, the declining population will also have a military effect. There is a limit to how much technology can compensate for bodies. If the ageing societies of Europe are not able to field more than a few hundred thousand soldiers and Egypt or even Yemen can easily field a lot more, the deterrence of weapons of mass destruction may not be effective anymore. First of all, countries with 100 million people are more willing to sacrifice one million people than countries with only 10 million people. And, secondly, a nuclear power could not nuke itself when millions of foreign soldiers invade it. Finding pretexts to go to war is a human specialty. Once the balance of power is tilted so dramatically by demographics, it will not be difficult for the countries of North Africa and the Middle East to find a perfectly valid excuse to launch an invasion of Europe. Another factor will make it even easier (and probably less bloody that it looks on paper): by then the very population of Europe will mostly consist of descendants of immigrants, who are unlikely to fight against their cousins coming from the original homelands of their ancestors. Mutatis mutandis, it will be Stilicho all over again (the "Roman" general who was actually a Goth and a friend of the Gothic general Alaric who was attacking the Roman empire). The European army of 2050, counting on relatively few soldiers and burdened by a not-too-patriotic ethnic mix, will not be a match for the large nationalistic homogeneous armies of North Africa and the Middle East.

Laqueur's book examines these and some other issues but, despite the title, is more focused on the past and the present than on the future. His analysis of the problems of France, Britain and Germany will age quickly as the three countries each entered a new age after elections that changed and rejuvinated their leadership. He should have stuck to his demographic argument, the one that no political change will easily rectify.