United States: A bogeyman called Europe

"You abject debt-maker!"
"You abject debt-maker!"
De Volkskrant (Amsterdam)

A haven for euthanasia, the homeland of socialism and the cradle of the debt crisis: for Republican candidates campaigning for the US presidency, Europe is a model that must be avoided at all costs.

Europe is where they do away with the infirm elderly, and where cruise line captains are the first to jump ship in the event of an accident. It is the place where the ailing euro continues to be a source of contagion for the rest of the world and where the economy is strangled by cumbersome and prohibitively expensive welfare states. Worse of all, it is a place where the future of the young generation is sacrificed.

Notwithstanding 65 years of good and faithful service, America’s longstanding European allies are being pilloried in the US presidential primaries, where no Republican campaign speech is complete without a fresh attack on a European whipping boy.

Attacks that specifically target other politicians are a standard feature of election campaigns, and Rick Santorum is not the first conservative to throw respect for reality to the winds with claims that, in the wake of the Netherlands’ legalisation of euthanasia, the elderly are no longer safe in the in the country. But the prevalence of tactics of this kind in the current US presidential race is nonetheless unprecedented. And they have been deployed with an added spin that makes them even more painful for Europeans: a certain pity. Europe, it seems, is of no further importance.

Obama a “European socialist”

China, India and Brazil are all on the agenda for Republican campaign meetings. The candidates are not sure if these emerging powers constitute a danger or an opportunity, but they are considered to be the future, whereas Europe represents the past. Thus the continent is not mentioned or a European approach is cited as an example to be avoided. As Mitt Romney puts it, “It does work there, and it will never work here”.

The European welfare state has become the weapon of choice for attacks on Obama. According to Republicans, the Democrat president “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe” and seeks to implement policies that would prevent freedom loving citizens from personally benefiting from their hard-earned cash, which to a large degree will have to be handed over to the all-powerful state for redistribution to others.

At every stage in his campaign, Romney has announced that a welfare state is “a fundamental corruption of the American spirit”, and this assertion has met with unfailing applause. In short, anyone who is pro-American must be anti-European and thus anti-Obama — an electioneering rhetoric that lacks subtlety but one that has nonetheless proved effective for Romney.

Another Republican candidate Newt Gingrich has gone even further, describing Obama as a “European socialist” intent on imposing a hostile foreign ideology on Americans.

Social mobility in Europe higher than in US

What consitutes fact is surprisingly elastic in the context of election campaigns. The Netherlands is not a “killing field” for the elderly. Europe is not a social Land of Cockayne, Obama is not a socialist, and the Republicans are not Darwinists in disguise. Although, they are theoretically opposed to public authority, opinion polls show that Republican voters have no real desire to modify benefit programmes for the sick and the elderly “to which they have contributed throughout their lives”. But nuances of this kind tend to disappear during election campaigns, which are all about highlighting contrasts, which rapidly lead to caricatural portrayals.

The only way they have found to maintain their costly welfare states is to force young people to accept “less secure work at lower pay”, wrote columnist Adam Davidson in the New York Times in January. European leaders may mock the United States for its inequalities and its lack of social security, but its own young people are forced to pay the price for their well-off elders. Davidson argues that America also has enormous debts, but its competiveness is intact, which is why he expects US growth to recover.

That is not to say that there are no objections to this argument. After all, social mobility in Europe is higher than it is in the United States. However, the negative image of a fossilized continent to hold sway, and youth unemployment figures are cited as a measure of this inflexibility. In Spain almost 50% of young people are without jobs, a figure that is even worse than the one for Greece which stands at 48%. The United States, with 18% youth unemployment is significantly better off, but according to a Wall Street Journal columnist, this relatively high rate is evidence that European “lassitude” could become a problem in America. In a word, the European bogeyman is never far away.

Only on very rare occasions to do we hear anything positive about Europe, and with this in mind we should welcome the remarks made by 62-year-old Republican and former White House advisor to Bush Senior, Richard Breeden, at the the party to celebrate Romney’s victory in New Hampshire, who insisted that the bid to “stabilize” Europe is “vitally important” for the US — words that are particularly resonant words when you consider the past of the continent.

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