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Despite the crisis, young Americans focus on the nice side of Europe

By Ognian Hishow

Ognian Hishow
Although I was pleased by the invitation, I was a bit uneasy about the prospect of teaching European political economy again this spring. I remembered my first stay at UR in the fall of 2008, when European affairs were not of much interest either to the broader American public, or to many UR students. At that time only 10 were on the class roster.

But the crisis changed the situation beyond recognition. My spring of 2012 class has grown much bigger, and its variance, as statisticians would put it, has increased as well. Freshmen and seniors, economists and biologists were interested in learning more about Europe’s economy.

Teaching went well and it was fun: we had lectures, student presentations, simulations of how European institutions decide on the EU budget or on a rescue plan for insolvent member states, and of course, exams. The semester closed with a term paper the students prepared on a topic of their choice.

Although I was expecting an avalanche of proposals on the EU financial and debt crisis, the bulk of the submissions centered on the European social model. Young Americans are interested in the way Europe is dealing with social issues, above all in the European preference of greater equity between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor. The overarching understanding of the essence of Europe’s social model across the class was, as one student put it, “…that it offers social provisions more extensive than found in the US.” In that same spirit another student has written that, “…promoting general welfare by public provision of social insurance to citizens has become a priority of the governments in Europe.” And while presenting a simple model highlighting the beneficial role of the state, he went on: “Public provision of … social insurance …can improve market inefficiency.” At the same time, although young Americans view EU social generosity rather positively, they are aware of the “trade-off problem.” “Anglo-Saxon countries have the efficiency but do not have the equitable social model, whereas the continental countries lack efficiency but enjoy far more equity,” a student observed.

Another hot topic capturing the attention and imagination of the students is the environment. Here, again, the prevailing perception of the students is that “…EU member states are more rigorously supporting pro-green regulations …[than the US] .” Is it a question of better understanding of environmental issues in Europe than in the US? And if yes, what are the consequences? Let’s start with the most familiar consequences, economic ones. Applying a model to analyze this question brought one student to the conclusion that, “…because US citizens are less environmentally conscious … (car) producers will face greater costs (than in Europe) when pro-green regulations are imposed and will fight harder against them…”

The positive view of Europe’s long history of integration has prompted her classmate to ask whether it is “Time for an Asian Union?” Here the thrilling question is about the prospect of a union of Asian member states that may mimic Europe because of the inspiration emanating from the EU success.

But hey, isn’t Europe in a deep crisis – even facing disintegration, as Greece, Spain, Italy and other countries struggle to re-balance their budgets and restore sound economies? Thankfully, with the optimism of the young, the students don’t see Europe going over a cliff. Rather, they tend to perceive the crisis as a chance to change the “old order”! As an economics major put it, “It seems better to fix these problems now, when the political chaos and collapse of old orders has opened a temporary window of opportunity….” Another student, while conceding the diametrically opposed perceptions (of Germany and Greece) over the bail-out issue currently ravaging the Euro-zone, warns that “…leaving the Euro-zone … would have detrimental economic and political consequences for … Europe and the world.” Therefore the EU shouldn’t break apart? She apparently wouldn’t like it; that is why she simply muses: “As for now, the whole world is listening and waiting [to see] what will happen next.”

Young Americans are starting to perceive Europe as a neighbor on the other side of the Atlantic – the latter not dividing, but rather tying the Old and New World together. They are discovering that the EU has a whole range of positive accomplishments to offer that Americans should not overlook.

Dr. Ognian Hishow was visiting professor in the Skalny Center in Spring 2012. He is Senior Research Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany.