Some time ago, I asked a man in a bar where he was from.
“I’m European,” he replied.
“Yes,” I said, “but where are you from?”
“I’m European,” he insisted.
In fact, he was obviously German, and perhaps only a German would have answered in this fashion. There are certain Germans with an excessive sensitivity to their country’s historical crimes for whom it might have seemed like the beginning of the slippery slope to world domination to have replied, “I’m German.”
But only someone with a cloth ear could fail to detect the false note in my interlocutor’s reply. While many people will admit that they are European, fewapart, perhaps, from the deracinated bureaucrats on the Brussels gravy trainwill admit to feeling European or identifying viscerally with Europe as a political entity. While many people support membership in the European Union on the grounds that it is good for their country, very few do so on the grounds that it is good for Europe. Ask not what you can do for Europe; ask, rather, what Europe can do for you.
Still, the pretense continues that the EU is more than a marriage of convenience born of the pan-European wars of the 20th century and sustained by the continent’s ongoing decline in importance. The “European project,” as some writers who fall halfway between intellectual and apparatchik are inclined to call it, is sometimes presented to the public as if it were a grand utopian experiment to make all men brothers. Just as Jehovah’s Witnesses hand out pamphlets portraying lions as very large, presumably vegetarian, domestic cats and grizzly bears as cuddly friends of childrenonce, of course, everyone has become a Jehovah’s Witnessso Eurocrats and Europhiles are inclined to talk of common destinies, eternal friendships, and the like. The Portuguese lion will lie down with the Estonian lamb, and all will be well.
Alas, current economic circumstances seem to have interrupted this pleasing daydream and introduced unpleasant realities. When you’re coasting along and financial growth seems to be the natural order of things, you can dream what you like. But the moment a contraction sets in, when it is a question of manning the economic lifeboats as it were, everyone wakes up quicker than you can say “Abandon ship!”
When French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced a large state loan to ailing French carmakers Renault and PSA-Citroen, everyone understood what it meant. Of course, Sarkozy said that it was a commercial loan at 6 percent interest. But the question naturally arises as to why the French bankswhich are a lot less unprofitable than their American counterpartsdid not then offer their assistance. In plain language, the loan was a temporary subsidy for companies that, in the normal course of business, would have gone bankrupt. While there is much to be said in favor of such a helping hand in difficult times, it cannot truthfully be presented as a purely commercial decision or transaction.
The real problem, however, was that Sarkozy also suggested that if the companies were to close factories anywhere, they should close them abroad and not in France. What, then, of the common European home? According to the ideology of Europe, it should be a matter of sublime political indifference to leaders where the jobs in commercial companies are located. Renault and Citroen-PSA should have their factories wherever it is in their commercial interest to have them and nowhere else. Almost by definition, many of them would not be in France. But Sarkozy is president of France, not of anywhere else, and his electors, with the lamentable national parochialism that is still prevalent everywhere, care more about what happens in France than what happens anywhere else. They wouldn’t think much of a French president who lent taxpayers’ money to preserve jobs in the Czech Republic.
Stresses and strains are appearing across Europe, resuscitating the prospects of political extremism. In Greece, the riots sparked by the police shooting of a 15-year-old boy in December 2008, which were the worst in the country’s recent history, were clearly worsened and prolonged by hundreds of young anarchists, many of whom carried the black and red anarchist flag (the colors also of Castro’s movement and the Sandinistas).
Although nominally of the far Left, the rioters could just as well have been of the far Right. The situation of Greece in some ways now resembles that of Romania in the 1920s. The number of university graduates rose in Romania fivefold during that decade, but there were few jobs for them, so there were many young men either underemployed or employed in positions that they felt degrading for their level of education. Greece is in precisely this situation now, with large and rising numbers of educated and unemployed or underemployed young men. In Romania, such young men tended to join the radical, anti-Semitic Iron Guard, which blamed Jews for everything. No one should doubt the possibility of a similar reaction in Greece, with its half million illegal immigrants from Albania, the Middle East, and Africa, as economic deterioration continues and desperation grows. Of course, the economic conditions that the angry young men of Greecewho during the riots looked both fit and well dressedare likely to experience would have made the young men of Romania in the 1920s deeply envious. But what counts is dashed hopes and frustrated expectations, not absolute levels of consumption.
It is not only in the peripheral economies of Europe that social conditions are auspicious for the development of extremist violence of one kind or another. France showed the way in 2005, and life in the banlieues of Paris continues to be a slow-motion riot, in which cars are burnt out every night.
In 2006, relatively privileged students rioted in the Boulevard Saint-Germain when the prime minister of the time, Dominique de Villepin, tried to ease the labor market for the unemployed youth of the banlieues. The position of the students was akin to that of the white miners in South Africa, who struck in 1922 when the mine-owners replaced them with black workers and the South African Communist Party supported the strikers with the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite for a White South Africa!” To use black miners was to increase profits and therefore exploitation.
The combustibility of the situation in France was further shown by the nasty little riot in the Gard du Nord in 2007, when a young man was arrested after exercising his inalienable right to punch two ticket inspectors in the face as they questioned his equally inalienable right to jump over the ticket barrier without paying his fare. This riot was in some respects more worrying than those of 2005, in that young men from ethnic minorities rioted in the center of Paris, which they had not dared to do two years earlier, even at the height of the unrest.
In 2007, young Germans showed in Rostock that they still knew how to be violent. One thousand people were injured during the riots that preceded the meeting of G8 leaders there. The troublemakers did not look as though they would have many qualms about instigating much worse violence. And all this before the economic crisis had even made itself felt, when youth unemployment was only 11.2 percent in Germany and 19.2 percent in France.
But it is in Britain that the potential for violent social unrest is the greatest, for thanks to the corrupt improvidence of prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Britain is not only the hardest hit of any of the major European countries by the crisis, but its social conditions are the worst. If the government had actually wanted social unrest and violence in the event of a severe economic downturn, it could hardly have arranged things better.
During all the years of so-called growtha mirage, of course, based on easy credit, asset value inflation, and indebtedness both public and privatefrom 1997 to 2007, both the proportion, and latterly the absolute numbers, of British-born adults in work declined, while the numbers of immigrant workers increased. In the last ten years, almost all new employment, at least 40 percent of it in the public sector, has been taken by immigrants, while the number of native-born unemployed in receipt of permanent social-security benefits of one kind or another has remained constant. They have simply been transferred from the list of unemployed to the list of sick, in order to substantiate the government’s bogus claim to have reduced unemployment. In the process, the government has succeeded, in times of supposedly unprecedented prosperity, in producing 30 percent more invalids in contemporary Britain than the total of men wounded in World War I (many of whom recovered, unlike modern British invalids wounded by the welfare state).
At least 80 percent of the immigrants came from outside the European Union and, having been granted indefinite leave to stay, have created huge obligations upon the government toward them in the event of their unemployment, since they are most unlikely ever to return whence they came. As the tax base declines, so the expenditure obligations increase.
As if this were not enough, the government has done all in its power to ensure that there are no forms of social solidarity that do not pass through a government departmentit went to the trouble of de facto nationalizing all the major charities well before it nationalized the banks. Forty-two percent of British children are now born illegitimate, and at least 25 percent can expect to live in a single-parent household, while many others live with serial step-parents, which is perhaps worse still. This is not a form of family life that can exist on a mass scale without state subvention, which if suddenly withdrawn or greatly reduced would plunge large numbers of people into real poverty. It conduces to common criminality, which is now rampant in Britain.
In short, the British government behaved as if there were, and could be, no tomorrow. Brown said there would be no more boom and bust under his management, which in a sense is correct: he has made sure that there won’t be a boom for a long time to come. In the meantime, the stage has been set for social conflict on a wide scale. The government might find itself unable to maintain the living standards of the very large proportion of the population that it has made dependent on it, in which case the already large criminal population will find many willing recruits. Ethnic and cultural strife, and radical xenophobia, will become evident as different “communities” press their claims for support in an increasingly zero-sum game. There have already been strikes protesting the use of foreign labor, even when it comes from the European Union, in oil refineries and power stations, suggesting that European law requiring freedom of movement of labor will either become a dead letter or a cause of strife. Either way, it does not look good for the “European project.”
Not long ago, I had occasion to stay for a few weeks in a once-industrial town in the north of England. The last steel mills had just closed down. I was surprised by the elegance of much of the early 19th-century architecture, now completely overwhelmed by the brutalism of the 1960s and ’70s. The prematurely middle-aged spent their time looking for secondhand clothes in charity shops. Pawnshops had also made a big comeback. Feral young men with an expression of urban predation on their faces stood around on street corners in nylon tracksuits and hoods, muttering f—ing this and f—ing that to one another. About half the people in the street were unemployed young immigrants, mainly of Middle Eastern origin, on the lookout for a bit of small-scale trafficking. Some took advantage of free Internet access in the public librarya concrete building aesthetically suitable as the headquarters of the Stasito look at inflammatory political sites or to search for women.
I have seen the future, and it’s riots.
Theodore Dalrymple is a retired doctor who divides his time between France and England. His latest book is Not With a Bang but a Whimper.
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