During this holiday season, the traditional time of reflection on the past and predictions for the future, a friend of mine from Switzerland sent me an email with Christmas greetings and best wishes for the upcoming year. But there was more than that in that email which triggered some thoughts which, in turn, resulted in this article.
My friend, now a retired business executive, is well known for his endless energy, agile mind and relentless pursuit of knowledge, especially in the fields of history, foreign affairs, business and politics. Living in the heart of Europe, yet in the country which is not part of the EU, he is well positioned to observe the fundamental (some say tectonic) shifts occurring on the European scene.
In his email he mentioned two things as a source of his concern – a) the current state of his pension fund with the astonishingly misbalanced ratio of active (working) members and pensioners and b) the recently passed bill by French parliament imposing criminal charges to those in France denying the fact of the Armenian ‘genocide’, this one in the broader context of the West-Islam relationship.
The first point brings us to the crisis of Europe. It has been unfolding with the various degrees of drama and comedy in the past roughly two years and has largely been dubbed by the media as the ‘sovereign debt’ crisis, (the recent suggestions to name it ‘banking crisis’ notwithstanding). The term covers up the main problem behind it – the crisis of the European welfare system. It is the inability of largely European southern states – Greece, Italy, Portugal and others – to pay for the welfare state programs which triggered the crisis in the first place.
Any welfare system to be run in a working fashion requires two things – a continuing healthy economic growth and a continuing healthy population growth. Both have long been a distant history in most of Europe. Although first created by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck back in 1880s ‘to win over the German workers’ the modern European welfare system really took off during the 50s and 60s, when the economic growth averaged 4.5%. This is in stark contrast to the average of 1.8% during the period of 1995-2011.
The situation with demographics seems even grimmer. Countless volumes have been written on the subject of aging of the world population in general and European population decline in particular. Simply put, there are not enough young working people to pay for the social benefits of the retired workforce. In the 27 countries of the EU the percentage of population aged 65-and-over was 16% in 2000, 18% in 2010 and is projected to be 29% in 2050.
Europe was trapped in a welfare trap of its own creation – as governments imposed more taxes on population and borrowed more money to pay for the ever ballooning social programs, the economic growth and birth rate decline accordingly. The day of reckoning has finally arrived and is unfolding in front of our eyes with no end in sight.
The recent French ‘Armenian genocide’ resolution and, more pointedly, the Turkish reaction to it, is but just one of the recent episodes which highlighted the trend of the past decade or so – the initially slow but increasingly accelerating divergence of Turkey’s and West’s interests and priorities. The process began with collapse of the Soviet Union and its elimination as the main Cold War adversary of the West and the NATO alliance in particular. During that period Turkey, with its second largest standing army in NATO, its strong secular institutions created by its founder Kemal Ataturk, and with its borders with the Soviet Union, was firmly pegged to the West’s interests as they largely coincided with its own.
No more. With its Ataturk’s legacy being slowly but systematically dismantled for the benefit of its Islamic values, Turkey, being the leading power of the vast Turkic world, and claiming its leadership role in the Arab and Islamic world, (increasingly so after this year’s Arab Spring), is demonstrating increasingly assertive and often openly hostile policy toward the West and its allies. Its relationship with Israel, until a few years ago one of the staunchest allies and military partners, has deteriorated to the point of virtual termination of all military cooperation. Some European parliamentarians are beginning to question the validity of Turkey’s membership in NATO.
The crisis of Europe, (financial, economic, demographic, political), and its deteriorating relationship with Turkey are two sides of one common phenomenon – the relative decline of the West or, conversely, the relative ascendance of Islam, (among other civilizations), as a factor of international relations.
Europe is at a critical juncture. The half-baked ideas offered so far by the EU’s heavyweights have not produced desirable results. It seems that to overcome its current crisis and tackle its formidable challenges coming from Islam and other civilizations, European political establishment might soon realize that some of the solutions which are being offered by the right wing parties and which are increasingly being supported by the ever more frustrated European electorate would have to be incorporated into overall strategy, if Europe wants to prevent its even deeper political polarization, and preserve its European identity.
My Swiss friend ended his email stating that despite all the recent worrisome news he is an optimist and hopes for the better. I am too. But we both agree that until we get to that ‘better’ point we are in for some ‘interesting’ and turbulent times.
By Sevim Geraibeyli @2011, all rights reserved.