Europe's ideals give way to a nightmare

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2012, 12:00am


Should you worry about the break-up of the euro zone if you live halfway across the world and have no investment exposure? No doubt the contagion of a break-up will be widely felt. But in a more fundamental political - human - sense, the fate of Europe should concern everyone.

This is because it is undergoing a grand generational experiment, inspired by noble dreams, to create a continent-wide political union that would be the most humane, affluent, equitable, tolerant and just society the world has seen. Its success or failure at full integration must surely concern people of goodwill everywhere.

Who would have thought Europe would come to this sorry state? In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was no more and the Maastricht Treaty - which created the European Union - had just been signed, you would have predicted the rise of Western-style democracy everywhere, and the fall of communism in China and elsewhere. The end of history was here. Just as old Europe has given the world the modern nation-state, so this new Europe would show what a free and rich post-modern state looked like.

Today, China is the second-largest economy in the world, governed by a highly competent but authoritarian one-party state, and people are fretting about the decline of the West. China is a state committed to providing material well-being and a decent living standard to its citizens, but it also tells them civil and political liberties are not part of the package. By contrast, the euro-zone countries are all democratic and respectful of civil and human rights, with a rich intellectual and scientific heritage. But these public goods are under threat as Europe becomes poorer and sees the rise of fringe and extremist groups from the left and right.

Can ruthlessness lead to desirable political outcomes while noble dreams end in nightmares? We don't have the clarity of ideological conflict during the cold war. But the moral conflict we face today may be just as fundamental: can people live together in peace, liberty and prosperity or do they have to be placed under the thumb of a powerful and ruthless central government to prosper?