Europe leaves the US behind

By Steven Hill
Published April 24th 2004 in
Spain's new left-leaning government attracted the ire of the Bush administration recently when it withdrew its troops from Iraq. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero fulfilled a campaign pledge when he announced the withdrawal, aligning the Spanish government with the overwhelming sentiment of the Spanish people, as well as with most governments and peoples of Europe.

Receiving less attention than the troop withdrawal, in his speech Zapatero announced other priorities that further separated his government from the White House. Zapatero pledged greater spending on education and affordable housing for low- and middle-income families. He also pledged a crackdown on violence against women -- a scourge he called Spain's "greatest national disgrace" -- and recognition of gay marriage. The last one no doubt will be dismaying to religious fundamentalists in both the Bush administration and the Taliban.

From inside the White House, Zapatero must look like a flaming leftie and certainly no ally. But actually he is quite within the mainstream of European politics, both on foreign policy and domestic matters. The fact is, even the conservative parties of Europe are to the left of the Democratic Party in the U.S. The European political center is where the American left would love to be. Europe’s famously generous social state is still alive and mostly well, though under attack by globalization and corporate opportunists who would like to bury it and render Europe more like -- the United States.

But the differences between Europe and the U.S. are growing, registering like a series of small quakes on the Richter scale. Trade disputes over agriculture, steel, and genetically modified foods; broken treaties and promises on global warming, sustainability, nuclear test bans, and the international court; sharply differing opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on the use of militarism vs. diplomacy to resolve disputes; eastward expansion of the European Union into traditional NATO areas; multilateralism vs. unilateralism, the list is long and growing. European corporations are expanding around the globe, challenging their U.S. counterparts. A rising Euro now is competing with the dollar as a global currency. The Europeans are closer to putting their John Hancocks on a new Constitution that will bind them closer as a continent.

Moreover, in numerous ways average Americans are falling behind our European counterparts in this age of globalization. Even with recent cutbacks, still Europeans have free health care for all, cradle to grave; free education through university level; generous retirement for their elderly; an average of five weeks paid vacation, more sick leave, and parental leave. Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the United States. Alternate energy development (wind, hydro, tidal and hydrogen cell power), food safety, organic and anti-GM laws, and labor laws are the envy of activists in the U.S. For those pro-Iraqi war American workers who patriotically joined in the dumping of French wines and the renaming of French fries to “freedom fries,” they might want to consider that they now work a full day longer per week – about seven weeks longer per year -- than French workers. Even the specter of higher unemployment, usually the American rebuttal to European superiority in so many other categories, turns out to be not so clear cut, with many European countries by 2003 having lower unemployment rates than the U.S., once the stock market bubble of the 1990s had burst.

And yet the American media is not reporting much of this. The typical American depiction of “old Europe” usually is fraught with stereotypical extremes, either colorful vacation adverts about castles on the Rhine or goose-stepping neo-Nazi parties. One headline in an American daily newspaper, in contemplating the apparent superior standing of average Europeans, blared the ridiculous question "Do European Workers Have It Too Good?" As if workers can have it too good -- obviously we know who owns that newspaper. The row at the United Nations seemingly burst from nowhere, but if the American media hadn’t been so asleep at the wheel, they would have seen it coming.

Why are Europeans outpacing Americans on so many social, political and economic fronts? The answers are complex but basically they boil down to the fact that, for the last 60 years in the post-WWII period, Europeans have been incubating markedly different "fulcrum institutions" -- the key institutions and practices on which everything else pivots. In particular, three fulcrum institutions form the foundation for the rest -- the political, economic, and media institutions. These three play an Archidemean role in deciding ever-evolving policies that affect people's lives, on matters ranging from health care, education, housing, transportation and taxes to the energy régime, corporate structure, immigration, foreign policy and national security.

In the political realm, Europe utilizes full representation electoral systems that gives representation to voters across the political spectrum, public financing of elections that fosters debate, universal voter registration, voting on a weekend or on a holiday, and national electoral commissions that establish nationwide standards and practices. Women and third parties have far greater representation at all levels of government. In the U.S., we are still stuck with our 18th-century winner-take-all system, privately financed elections, poor voter participation, poll-tested sound bites aimed at undecided swing voters, voting on a busy work day, and haywire decentralized election administration left to over 3000 counties scattered across the country.

In the media realm, Europe boasts a robust public broadcasting sector (radio and TV) and subsidized daily newspapers, leading to more media pluralism, a better-informed citizenry, more people reading newspapers, and a higher level of what political scientist Henry Milner calls "civic literacy." In the U.S., we are still stuck with corporate media gatekeepers, media monopolies, an astonishing loss of political ideas and a poorly informed citizenry.

In the economic realm, Europeans have developed practices such as "codetermination," which provides meaningful worker representation on corporate boards of directors, and powerful works councils in the workplaces. There is more of a balance of stockholder and stakeholder rights, forcing business leaders to confer more extensively with their workers and labor unions. There also are continent wide minimum labor and environmental standards, including more union-friendly laws.

Taken together, these fulcrum institutions work coherently to form the basis of a “European Way” that is distinctly different from the “American Way.” This provides a rough blueprint of where institutional development in the United States needs to go in the 21st century. Those who care about the future of our country should take their cues from Europe.