Timothy Garton Ash is one of my favorite British commentators. He is devoted to the concept of Europe, but contemplates the real thing with eyes wide open, aware of every wart and wrinkle. In this piece, written from Florence, Italy, he reflects on why Europe rose to the heights of power and wealth, outstripping more advanced civilizations such as China or the Arab caliphate.
The word Ash uses for his explanation is “diversity,” but he really means competition. European nations innovated and took great chances because they were afraid other European nations would scamper above them in the ladder of success. While I distrust one-answer explanations, there’s probably some truth in this one.
Alas, things have changed. Competition got out of control. Europeans tore each other apart in two world wars. The EU was established to smother and squelch the natural pushiness of Europe’s talented peoples. It has succeeded too well at its job. The genius and vigor that was once Florence’s — and France’s, and Britain’s, and Germany’s, and Spain’s — has moved elsewhere.
Ash, an honest thinker, accepts the evidence of his own eyes: Europe has lost not only its power but something far more important, its energy, its ancient drive to excel. But Ash is also a natural optimist, looking for a silver lining. This is the best he can do:
A probable future is that, having chosen this path of the peaceful, consensual management of diversity, Europe is set for a long period of relative economic decline. But relative decline need not be absolute decline. If we Europeans are conscious of the choice we are making; if we don’t kid ourselves that we can have our cake and eat it, simultaneously enjoying the social solidarity and easier lifestyle of Europe and the economic dynamism of America and Asia; if we mobilise to make the maximum reforms that our political systems and societies permit; then we can still live quite well. After all, Florence is not doing so badly after 500 years of relative decline. Perhaps Florence is Europe’s future.
For once, Ash is sadly deluded. He assumes Europe can decline untroubled by the world. But the chief lesson of Europe’s own history is that weakness invites aggression. The decline of Florence is a good example. Once the city lost faith in its republican institutions, it successively was stripped of its wealth, power, and finally its independence. First Spain then the Austrian Hapsburgs ruled the city through their local stooges. Most of the last 500 years of Florentine life would not furnish a model for Europeans to emulate.
Ash also takes it for granted that the populations of Europe will quietly accept their lot as losers in the race for wealth and power. But what people have ever willingly embraced defeat? Sneaking outbreaks of patriotism have been reported in England, cheering the country’s team to victory in soccer’s World Cup. To partake of excellence is a human need. An ideology of gentle decline will be rejected for alternatives that are unpredictable but almost certainly ungentle.
Finally, there’s the question of sheer physical survival. Despite its political and economic decadence, Renaissance Florence endured because the Renaissance Florentines energetically reproduced themselves. Today, Europe’s birthrate has fallen below reproduction levels, Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe, and Florence has the lowest birthrate in Italy. In the most basic sense, as a distinct population, Florence is dying, and it may be that in this sense it truly represents the future of Europe.