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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

This D-Day, Europe needs to resolve to get its act together

A 21-gun salute during a ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France on Thursday, June 6, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

By Bret Stephens

Today’s D-Day anniversary — the 80th — is occasioning somber and anxious reflections about the fate of the Atlantic alliance. Somber because the last of the Greatest Generation will soon no longer be with us. Anxious because Donald Trump, and his evident disdain for that alliance, may soon be with us again.

The anxiety is partly misplaced. Trump’s truculent brand of American nationalism is a terrible idea for many reasons, not least in the encouragement it gives to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to target weaker U.S. allies. But Trump is also the messenger of a warning Europeans desperately need to heed.

In a nutshell: Shape up.

Europe today faces four great challenges that typically determine the fate of great powers. Take a brief look:

Growth and dynamism: In 1960 the EU 28 — the 27 countries currently in the European Union, plus Britain — accounted for 36.3% of global gross domestic product. By 2020 it had fallen to 22.4%. By the end of the century it is projected to fall to just under 10%. By contrast, the United States has maintained a roughly consistent share — around a quarter — of global GDP since the Kennedy administration.

Think of any leading-edge industry — artificial intelligence, microchips, software, robotics, genomics — and ask yourself (with a few honorable exceptions), where’s the European Microsoft, Nvidia or OpenAI?

Military power: When the Cold War ended in 1990, the West German military fielded more than 500,000 troops and spent 2.5% of its GDP on defense. As of last year, it was down to 181,000 troops and 1.57%. Britain’s Royal Navy, the most powerful in the world at the outset of World War II, can now deploy just 10 submarines and fewer than two dozen major surface warships, some of which are inactive.

In an all-out war, the British would exhaust their defense capabilities in about two months, according to a report to the House of Commons defense committee. The same would likely be true — if not much sooner — for every EU member-state apart from Poland, which aims to spend as much as 5% of its GDP on defense next year.

Demographics: What do Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, his predecessor Angela Merkel, President Emmanuel Macron of France, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and former British prime minister Theresa May have in common? They are childless. That’s their personal business (and far from representative of all EU leaders), but it’s symbolic of a Continent where just under 3.9 million Europeans were born in 2022 and 5.15 million died. A shrinking and aging population typically correlates with low economic growth, not least because entrepreneurship is usually a young person’s game.

Europe has an additional challenge: a relatively high Muslim birthrate, along with the prospect of long-term Muslim migration. Under a “medium migration” scenario estimated by Pew, by 2050 Britain will be nearly 17% Muslim, France 17.4% and Sweden 20.5%. Those wondering about the ascendence of far-right European parties, who are heavily favored to sweep this week’s elections in the EU Parliament and who are often sympathetic to Putin, know this is a factor. And they need to be honest that the values of depressingly notable segments of these Muslim populations are fundamentally at odds with European traditions of moral tolerance and political liberalism.

Purpose and will: Many of Europe’s current failings are explained (often by European leaders themselves) as a problem of political mechanics: insufficient coordination between states; inadequate power in Brussels; failures of transmission between declared goals and real-world results. But the problem isn’t just one of process. It’s also one of spirit. A few questions:

— If Russia defeats Ukraine and decides in a few years’ time to attack one of the Baltic countries, is there a deep pool of young Germans, Belgians or Spaniards willing to die for Tallinn or Vilnius?

— As Europe’s NATO members struggle to meet the bare minimum goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense, are they willing to come to grips with the fact that they probably need to spend twice as much?

— How much state protection, in social welfare and economic regulation, are Europe’s aging voters willing to forgo for the sake of creating a more dynamic economy for a dwindling number of young people?

— How forceful are European leaders willing to be in insisting that their values — including freedom of speech, women’s rights and gay rights — must be protected against the illiberal instincts of a growing share of their voters?

Trump’s ideas about NATO, his zero-sum attitudes about winning, his fondness for strongmen and his ignorance of and indifference to history are all, rightly, causes for European alarm. But people, and nations, succeed or fail to the extent that they refuse to hand over responsibility for their fates to others.

“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it,” V.S. Naipaul once warned. It’s good advice for Europe on this solemn anniversary of their previous liberation.

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