THE DEBATE OF THE CENTURY IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT...I recall the time I sat in the public gallery of the European Parliament in Brussels, observing a heated debate among hundreds of members of the European Parliament (or MEPs, as they are called). It was October 2005, and the MEPs had come from all across the European continent, representing a half billion people. In typical European fashion the debate was being translated simultaneously into twenty-two different languages, including the usual English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, and Dutch, but also Magyar, Romani, Maiti, Latvian, and Czech, among others.
The MEPs sat with their headsets on, listening intently to the translations, as one by one they sparred over pressing political and economic issues that, at the time, you would have heard only faint echoes of in the halls of the United States Congress. Yet, once the American economy collapsed three years later in the fall of 2008, dragging the rest of the world into its vortex, these issues suddenly were center stage all across the globe. The challenges being debated by the MEPs boiled down to the following: To what extent should a capitalist economy and its core institutions—the banks, the financial institutions, the corporations—be regulated to maintain stability as well as sufficient economic growth? How do you harness global capitalism so that it not only produces wealth but also contributes to a broadly shared prosperity? How does an economy ensure that employers provide high enough wages and sufficient workfare security so that families and individuals can live a good life, but without squashing entrepreneurship and damaging the competitiveness of the economy itself? Finally, how do you make that kind of dynamism ecologically sustainable in a world staring into the face of global climate change, burgeoning populations, and finite natural resources? These and other questions weighed heavily on the minds of the MEPs.
To an unfamiliar American, this debate would have sounded like the age-old one of socialism versus capitalism, but nothing was further from the truth. All of the various European nations have capitalist economies and vibrant, competitive businesses; in fact Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China combined, and more small businesses creating a far higher percentage of jobs. But while it’s true that free market forces and global trade have made America and Europe’s high quality of life the envy of the world and also lifted millions of people in developing economies out of poverty, it also is true that in the short term the “creative destruction” of global capitalism produces both winners and losers.
So Europe’s parliamentarians knew a lot was at stake; it was as if they were anticipating the economic crash to come. MEP after MEP stood and delivered with passion, each followed by ripples of applause. This was no idle conversation; the future of Social Europe was wavering in the balance. In fact, the post-World War II consensus—the social contract itself—was in play. I listened to the English translation through my headset, marveling that this continent which had fought two horrific wars in the previous century now was leading the world in debating the best way to enact a peace founded on the three pillars of broadly shared prosperity, economic security, and ecological sustainability. Disagreements abounded, but even the “conservative” MEPs were less conservative than the Democratic Party in the United States, which remained too timid after retaking Congress in the 2006 elections to raise substantive debate about rampant inequality in the United States, a speculative housing bubble, global climate change, or a failing health care system (and, as it turned out, President Obama was not to be the transformative, FDR-like “game changer” that many had hoped he would be, failing to substantially change the American narrative around these issues).
The MEPs’ intense debate, which now is occurring all around the world, sheds important light on one of the preeminent challenges of the 21st century. The overarching task today is to fashion institutions and practices that are capable of fostering a desirable quality of life for a burgeoning global population of over 6.5 billion people. The addition of resource depletion and global climate change—the prospect of an overheating atmosphere, tumultuous weather patterns, rising sea levels and subsequent mass dislocation—to the usual mix of geopolitical tensions has resulted in an even greater sense of urgency. If we don’t succeed, the future of our world is in jeopardy. We are living in a make or break century.
Unfortunately this sophisticated level of discussion was quite beyond the American conversation during the George W. Bush years, and regrettably has been disappointing under the Obama administration as well. America seems stuck in gear. But Europeans have been confronting these issues head on for some time now. The various nations of Europe and their unique adaptations and institutions have much to offer as we attempt to chart a steady course during an anxious and insecure 21st century. Our transatlantic cousins are showing the world a new face, a new way of structuring the economy, work, health care, family values, energy, transportation, democracy, foreign policy, and other crucial sectors that, on balance, augur the best future for the world.
—Steven Hill 11:06 AM