By Jeremy Rifkin / Tarcher, 2004, 448 pp.
Sarkozy mobbed by well-wishers and fans. Apparently snake oil salesmen can be successful in France, too.
Book Review by Tom Gallagher
The French and Dutch votes against the proposed European Union (EU) constitution probably didn’t help the sales of Jeremy Rifkin’s new book any. If Europeans don’t agree on Europe’s vision of the future, how’s an American supposed to sell a book called The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream?
The fact is, though, that where some of Rifkin notions about the “bold new experiment in living” going on in Europe might once have seemed too vague, the recent turn of events makes them now seem reasonably in tune with European reality. For every argument put forward in the French and Dutch debates that this constitution was needed to advance just the sorts of things that Rifkin admires in Europe, there was a counter claim that it would do quite the opposite and deliver control of Europe to international capital.
Vagueness about the EU is not something that started with Rifkin. Jacques Delors set the standard, once describing the EU as an “unidentified political object”—and he was its chief administrator. This “object” now includes 25 sovereign nations—with more assumed on the way—encompassing 100 different nationalities that speak 87 different languages and dialects. It has a combined population of 455 million, in an area half the size of the continental U.S.
Rifkin doesn’t undertake the task of persuading Americans to pay attention to European politics lightly. He recalls when he first became politically involved, during the Vietnam War era, that regardless of how radical their dissent from their country’s policies, “virtually every young American activist I knew believed deep down, that if fundamental changes were to occur, they would start here in America and spread to the rest of the world.” Europe rates down about on the level of Australia—just above Antarctica—in its influence on the U.S. left over the past half century. Americans have studied movements in Asia, Africa, and South America far more carefully than anything European. The point is not to look to Europe for inspiration, but for perspective.
Since passing world dominance on to the U.S. by virtue of two World Wars, Europe is less wealt- hy, with lower income, but more leisure time, yet ranks above it on many markers of wealthy nations, such as higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates. It has less disparity of income and the lower incarceration and homicide rates that probably result from it. The EU now requires the abolition of the death penalty—even in wartime—as a condition of membership, polls say that a majority of its citizens see the greatest threat to world peace now coming not from terrorists, but from the world’s one remaining superpower.
Its current constitutional crisis has revived Henry Kissinger’s famous question, “What’s Europe’s phone number?” Nonetheless, although the U.S. does 40 percent of the world’s military spending, the fact that EU nations that have supplied 80 percent of UN peace- keeeping forces (10 times as many as the U.S.) and 70 percent of their funding over the last 50 years suggests that despite its multiple phone listings, Europe has been converging on a very different mode of operating in the world.
At 434 pages, this book is maybe 100 pages longer than it need be, with long stretches that do “sound esoteric and airy,” as Rifkin fears. The discussion of the danger of ripping the fabric of space time, for instance, might have been better saved for another book. There’s a lot of useful speculation in this book, though. But what makes it more than just philosophical musing about things European is the real world creation of the EU that turned idea to law. The long-term impact of the constitutional crisis will have everything to do with where this “experiment in living” goes.
One of the most interesting developments Rifkin cites is the European Commission’s recent embrace of the “precautionary principle” in the oversight of science and technology. The new policy, entirely a creation of the new European bureaucracy, holds that products may be banned not only if they have been proven to pose a danger to health or the environment, but also if they have not been proven to be safe.
The EU, then, reserves the right to err on the side of caution and the burden may lie with the manufacturer to prove a product’s safety. The U.S. has, not surprisingly, fought this. The U.S. National Foreign Trade Council argues that the precautionary principle “has effectively banned U.S. and other non- EU exports of products deemed hazardous, stifled scientific and industrial innovation, and advancement.”
Rifkin’s assessment of the EU runs counter to most American left wing commentary that focuses on the EU’s adoption of regulations allowing foreign capital to break down laws and publicly-owned companies that individual EU member nations have created—a phenomenon we’re familiar with from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization. While this critique is true, the fact that the EU embodies contradictory tendencies only means that we have to work harder to know what’s really going on there. The book’s contribution is to remind us that whatever does shake out in Europe, the more we Americans understand it, the better off we’ll be.
Tom Gallagher is an activist and freelance writer living in California.