The reflex reaction to the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine in European countries is to blame the EU. But the European Medicines Agency “remains of the view that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine…outweigh the risks of side effects.” So what’s going on?
Are the countries concerned running short of supplies, and spinning necessity as a virtue? Could it be that they are driven by the need to maintain public confidence – especially in countries with lower vaccination rates? Is France, for example, wrestling with a problem that Emmanuel Macron’s slighting of the vaccine has worsened?
We suspect that the answers have as much to do with psychology – and sociology – as politics, founded in a fact: Europe has an ageing population.
Age brings certain characteristics with it. Some say wisdom; others folly, but few dispute that it produces caution. In an ageing continent, the precautionary principle goes down well.
Now think about older people as individuals. They tend to be less aggressive than younger ones. This has its pluses: there have been fewer European wars since 1945, and none at all of any note in western Europe if one exempts terrorist campaigns. It also has its minuses: most members of NATO are not meeting their commitments to it.
Next, consider older people as a collective. How does an ageing society preserve its living standards? Europe’s response has been to import labour to sustain them. That heightens integration and cohesion problems – and worse, as we have seen with Islamist and fascist extremism. Parties of the far left and right flourish in these conditions.
Finally, the relationship between ageing and inventiveness is a troubled one – what one study headlines as “the tendency of aging societies to lose dynamism”. Europe has not produced a rival to Silicon Valley. In the Times Higher Education‘s world university rankings, EU countries produce six of the world’s 50 top universities.
Whether ageing societies produce new culture, in a way that makes the weather worldwide, is a subject bigger than one article can cover. This site’s impressionistic take is there is no modern European equivalent of Jean Paul Satre or Thomas Mann or Igor Stravinsky – none with the same kind of projection or reach.
Perhaps that has more to do with the way we live now, and the atomisation driven by social media, than any measure than really means anything. Maybe Jacques Derrida and the deconstructionists have had as much impact as Satre and the existentialists: if so, no wonder European culture is losing its self-confidence.
The instinct to think politics is going the same way is eternal: there is a tendency in each age to see political leaders as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants. But, certainly, the experience of today’s politicians is more limited. By and large, they haven’t lived through war like Charles De Gaulle or suffered under communism like Václav Havel.
We run the risk in some of the above in eliding Europe with the EU. Whatever your take on Brexit, it is hard to argue that the present halfway house state of the Union, in which there is monetary but not fiscal union, supports decision-making with sufficient coherence, speed and conclusiveness and, many would add, accountability.
That said, there is a certain strength that comes from acting together (the Single Market is one of its products), and the logical endpoint of “ever-closer Union” is monetary, fiscal and political union – period. We believe that such an arrangement wouldn’t suit Britain any more than the halfway house did, but others are free to differ.
Where is the light in this dark landscape? In several places. First, there is a case which holds that as Europe’s older population works longer inventiveness and creativity will rebound. Second, European voters have proved more resistant to extremism, come elections, than some projections expected.
Third, Europe still does much well. We are thinking not only of its cultural heritage and economic strengths but of, for a moment, ways in which some of its countries do better than others, including us. The NHS is not the envy of the world – at least, not of the French or Germans, who have a healthcare system as good as ours or better.
Other European countries are usually better than Britain at supporting families through the tax system. If Germany’s universities don’t tend to rank as well as ours, then it has done better post-war in technical education (indeed, for much longer).
And, obviously, most of what we’ve written lumps Europe together as a whole. This can be deceptive. For example, maybe Ireland’s recent self-confidence is bound up with the growth in its population, which bucks the trend.
So, though to a lesser degree, does ours, at least for the moment. We have our own pluses and minuses – not the least of the latter being the regional inequalities to which Boris Johnson’s stress on levelling-up is a response.
On the former, let’s take a view of Leave Britain from a former Remainer: “the UK has the potential to be world-leading in areas such as fintech, life sciences, artificial intelligence and genetic modification – and to move with more agility and creativity than the EU in the decade ahead.” That’s David Lidington, writing for Policy Exchange.
Europa was a mythical princess abducted by Zeus who galloped off with her, in his mutable way, in the form of a bull. Today, she is the symbol of an ageing continent. And in most European countries, there are more women than men. If we speak of Old Woman Europe, it isn’t pejoratively.