When you as an European travel outside of the continent and chat with fellow travelers from countries far away, they often start to explain why they love Europe so much, or alternatively, why they dream about going there one day. The reason mentioned is almost always the same: History. The museums, the castles, the impressive century-old architecture, the cozy old towns one can stroll through – these things attract crowds from everywhere.
Europe’s history seems to be the main selling point of the continent. Unfortunately, what tourists see as highly desirable and stuff of their dreams, easily becomes baggage for those living in Europe. The common association of Europe with old history stands symbolic for the state of the continent: A place with so much to look back at and – with a few dark exceptions – to romanticize about, that the look ahead easily is ignored.
It is a bit like Clayton Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma”, a phenomenon which affects companies that have grown and prospered for a long time until they reach a point when they stop innovating and when their energy increasingly is invested into keeping the status quo instead of reinventing themselves. In my eyes this is exactly what Europe faces right now: The innovator’s dilemma. It should aggressively reinvent itself. Instead it creates lots of flawed compromises and fights every attempt to actually get ahead of the curve again.
Some of the countries populating Europe are certainly doing very well, ranking high in global rankings about innovation, social equality, education, economic advancements and environmental protection. But these things are considered national achievements, not European achievements. Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Switzerland, Germany (to name a few) are international role models in various areas – but they are not achieving this under the “European” brand.
The problem is that all these tiny nation states won’t have a great future outside of the European umbrella for long. If you look at the world today and the challenges it has to deal with, tiny countries of some million or some tens of millions of citizens will increasingly have less influence on the question where humanity as a whole is heading. In order to participate in shaping the global future and to not be overrun by the U.S., Russia, China and other possible upcoming giants, Europe will need to present itself as one strong force. Sorry to tell this to all nationalists and separatists, but the reason why the NSA and other intelligence agencies were able to spy on European citizens so easily and on such a large scale as revealed by Edward Snowden is because nobody takes the many European countries’ governments seriously enough to refrain from that.
Europe has a lot to offer as an alternative to the ultra-capitalists in the West and the anti-democratic autocrats in the East. But in order to rise and become a respected player that can lead the debate instead of only playing by the rules of others, Europe needs to shape up. It has to leave some of its mental and bureaucratic baggage behind and understand that there is a big chance – and possibly the only option – to become a real global power and a place that gives its people a vision about a better future. Because that’s severely lacking in Europe right now, which explains the attention the new Greek government and especially its charismatic, outspoken and straight forward finance minister Yanis Varoufakis receives: He and his colleagues seem to have a different type of plan. In today’s Europe, characterized by a seemingly never-ending crisis – or multiple crises nestled into each other – that is already enough to get people excited. It does not matter if the plan is good. It almost necessarily will better than what Brussels has in mind. At least that is the common perception, which itself is an indicator of a huge problem.
Unfortunately, the recent weeks have shown again that Europe is far away from becoming the visionary, future-minded place it could (and in my eyes should) become. The initial plan to end roaming charges has just been postponed to 2018. The most recent proposal on the Telecoms’ Single European Market undermines the core principle of net neutrality (while the U.S. is heading into the opposite direction). Digital products such as e-books are still discriminated by EU law compared to their physical counterparts. And a new EU tax rule creates another massive bureaucratic overhead for digital services providers. At the same time, European policymakers come up with rather narrow-minded ideas to regulate the big Internet giants from overseas. They appear blind for what actually keeps European technology companies from becoming global players battling Google & co: It’s the European bureaucracy, the regional fragmentation and the mental baggage carried into the present from a different time. A time that does not exist anymore, and that never will come back.
The fact that a conservative German politician like Günther Oettinger, born in 1953, is now in charge of Europe’s digital future, is telling. So are his ridiculous comments about net neutrality.
It’s painful to see all this, while elsewhere in the world things are happening at a fast pace. Not always with the ideal outcome for everybody, which is where Europe could do better. But unfortunately we are too distracted. Europe has to deal with internal debates and identity conflicts, with the ongoing financial crisis, with rising populism on both extremes of the political spectrum, with the threat of fundamentalist terror, with the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, with the war in Ukraine, with the aggressions of Russia, and with the desire to protect the European cultural heritage; to keep everything running preferably in the same way and according to the same principles as always. So yes, the situation really is not easy. But exactly because of that a new Europe needs to arise. A place whose citizens are proud of its history and accomplishments (again, with some obvious exceptions), but who also understand the need to consequent forward-thinking. Europe is standing still right now, or at least that’s the impression most people get. But it can’t afford to stand still.
The citizens of Europe need a renewed hope for a better future. This won’t work by having countries turning back to nationalism, hoping that the global challenges will go away by itself. They won’t. The populists who promise that to people are lying. The only way forward is a real European identity, lead by a pledge to constantly thinking outside of the box, to bold but smart experiments, to radical reduction of bureaucracy and to a new self confidence. There is a lot Europeans can be proud of and a lot that can be achieved. Many people just do not see that because they stick to their illusions and narrow-mindedness, hoping that eventually the clock can be turned back. It’s time to leave the comfort zone.
My wish is that in 30 years tourists won’t come to Europe primarily because of the history but instead because they want to see how the continent has reinvented its identity, mixing the heritage of the past with cutting-edge technological and social innovation of today and big ideas of tomorrow.