May 3, 2013 2:05 pm

Smile if you’re European

It’s all relative: why it’s not so bad to be European after all
Illustration by Luis Grañena of a man holding a wineglass looking up at an EU flag with stars arranged as a smile©Luis Grañena

Sometimes you really do need to smell the coffee. Arriving in Turin recently I made straight for the nearest bar and ordered a caffè macchiato. A charming woman served it up. I drank it standing at the counter. It was perfection. It cost €1. Then I had another. The bar was absolutely ordinary, with fading tablecloths and some pensioners doddering in the corner. Such a cheap moment of happiness, obtainable in its pure form only in Italy, gets you wondering: are things really so bad in Europe? Life here is better than you’d ever know from watching TV news.

Undeniably, many Europeans are suffering. Levels of unemployment are the highest since records began in France (3.2 million) and Spain (6 million). Bad European news mounts almost daily.

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Simon Kuper

Europe is having a terrible time – except compared with probably every other continent and any time in history. Look at crisis-stricken Spain, for instance. The average Spaniard now lives to 82, seven years longer than in 1980. (Most countries where people can expect to reach 82 are European, says the World Health Organisation.) Today that average Spaniard’s income, despite years of crisis, is still nearly double what it was in 1980. And across Europe, daily life has tended to get gradually more pleasant. For instance, crime rates have kept falling in most western countries despite the crisis. British streets haven’t been this safe in more than 30 years, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics.

It’s important to realise that most people’s lives aren’t affected by the latest twist in the eurozone crisis. A good new breast-cancer drug often does more for collective happiness than a good new prime minister. And those gains get shared out most fairly in Europe. That’s why seven of the 10 best-rating countries on the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index are European. So are six of the top 10 least corrupt in Transparency International’s corruption perception index. And when the CIA ranked 136 countries for income equality, the 17 most equal were all European. No wonder Spain and even Greece outrank Qatar on the United Nations’ human development index.

Most emerging economies lag decades behind us: Russian, Brazilian and Chinese average incomes are still below half those in Greece, according to the World Bank. Nonetheless, the relative rise of new countries engenders paranoia. The American pundit Thomas Friedman often says China and India are “eating our lunch”. But since the global economy isn’t a zero-sum game, it’s more accurate to say that the Chinese and Indians are making our lunch. The richer they get, the better they can afford our high-end engineering products, hotel rooms, luxury goods, universities, etc.

It’s also notable how well European democracies have held up under five years of crisis. In 1981, when shots were fired in Spain’s parliament, that average Spaniard still worried about a fascist coup. Today every western European country is a secure democracy. Contrary to predictions, Europe’s far right hasn’t risen en masse during the crisis, notes the London-based research and advisory group Counterpoint. Nor has western Europe experienced a big terrorist atrocity since 2005.

A decade ago, American pundits were predicting that anti-Semitism or vengeful Muslim immigrants or both would rip Europe apart. Indeed, in 2004, the American ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, said continental anti-Semitism was “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s”. That claim was always ludicrous, but its ludicrousness should now be plain even to Schnabel. In short: several dogs haven’t barked in Europe this crisis.

Crucially, too, the next round of wars shouldn’t involve Europeans. If Iran, North Korea or Taiwan blows up, we won’t be there. We just don’t have the gunboats any more. Last year Asian defence spending exceeded Europe’s probably for the first time since Europeans began conquering the world 500 years ago. Defence experts bewail our impotence. But on the bright side, governments with strong armies always overestimate their ability to manage a war smoothly, and get lured into horrible adventures. That won’t happen to us. Sure, the 400 million western Europeans – just 6 per cent of the global population – won’t rule the world again, but then we don’t particularly want to.

When even Serbia and Kosovo make peace, you know something remarkable is happening here. Perhaps the EU actually deserved its Nobel Peace Prize. And given our lack of natural resources, other countries will probably leave us in peace. Daniel Keohane, head of strategic affairs at Fride, the European think-tank on foreign policy, says: “No one would predict a war in Europe involving very large powers.” Europe, says Keohane, increasingly looks like “a very pleasant suburb of geopolitics”.

Our crisis won’t last for ever. Then it will be another continent’s turn to get caned by pundits for its stupid model. One day young Europeans will get jobs again, and we’ll just be a delightful backwater with excellent macchiato. I can think of several worse places to live.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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