May 25, 2006


Like it or not, Europe is paying the transaction costs of diversity: Renaissance Europe's restless pluralism brought great creativity, but also bloodshed. Now we have peace without dynamism (Timothy Garton Ash, Thursday May 25, 2006, The Guardian )

Amid yawns of boredom from most of our citizens, Europe's political intellectuals agree that the EU needs a new narrative to inspire us. What should that be? Ah, say some, the narrative of diversity. On the face of it, this is an odd thing to say. This new political narrative must presumably address the question: "What do we all have in common?" "That we are all so different!" does not seem a sufficient answer. The more conventional European formula is "unity in diversity" - but where's the unity?

In the great age of Renaissance Florence, diversity was indeed the dynamo of Europe's extraordinary creativity. There's a marvellous book called The European Miracle, by the economic historian EL Jones, that explores why Europe rather than China - scientifically and technologically more advanced than Europe in the 14th century - produced the scientific, agrarian and industrial revolutions that led the world into modernity. In brief, his answer is: Europe's diversity.

But this was the diversity of a restless, often violent competition between cities, regions, states and empires. Florence and Siena, England and France, Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire - they did not resolve their differences by coalition agreements and endless negotiations in airless committee rooms on the Rue de la Loi in Brussels. To reverse Churchill's post-1945 adage: they made war-war not jaw-jaw.

Many readers will remember the speech that Orson Welles put into the mouth of the gangster Harry Lime, in the film of Graham Greene's The Third Man: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Has Europe today entered its age of the cuckoo clock?

Of course I'm not suggesting that what we in Europe need is another good dose of warfare, terror and bloodshed; but I am wondering aloud about the conditions in which diversity produces dynamism and creativity. The question for all Europeans today is whether the path we have chosen since the end of our last 30 years' war (from 1914 to 1945) - the path of permanent, institutionalised, peaceful conflict resolution, both domestically and internationally, inspired by the "spirit of solidarity and consensus" that the former European commission president Romano Prodi has promised to rebuild in his new Italian government - is capable of producing a dynamism to match that of the US, let alone of the rising powers of Asia. Yes, we have Airbus - which produces slightly better planes than Boeing - and a European GPS system called Galileo, which may eventually be slightly better than the American one; but aren't these the exceptions that prove the rule? They should not obscure the fact that the economies of China and India are currently growing at around 10%, ours at an average of around 2%. And that's at least partly because of the enormous transaction costs of what, to be more precise, we must describe as the peaceful management of diversity.

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.

All this is necessary to such a modus vivendi is that you abandon the purpose of life. But, it seems unlikely that you can convince everyone to do so and get them all to just let you die in peace.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 25, 2006 8:10 AM

What amuses me about that comment by Wells is how ignorant he is of Swiss history. When the Swiss weren't fighting their neighbors, or each other, they supplied mercenaries to much of Europe.

Democratic? Perhaps. Peaceful? Not until late in the 19th century.

Posted by: Jim Miller at May 25, 2006 11:01 AM


And of course, the Pope's bodyguards are Swiss mercenaries to this day. (For that matter, if the Swiss were pacifists they would hardly have gotten 500 years of peace at home, would they?)

Posted by: Mike Earl at May 25, 2006 11:24 AM

Something tells me europe is going to get a nicel little wakeup call soon. The burning cars in Paris are just the new barbarians clearing their throats.

Viva diversity

Posted by: Amos at May 25, 2006 12:05 PM

They can't wake up. They don't believe in anything.

Posted by: oj at May 25, 2006 12:59 PM

Have we learned nothing?!?!

The Swiss only became militarily competent when the Templars fled into the Swiss mountains after the French King tried to kill them all and take their treasure.

When will you people wake up?

Posted by: Pepys at May 25, 2006 7:11 PM