ROME The European countryside is as beautiful as ever. Hotels in the cities are as packed as they are high-priced. Tourists fill Rome. The same bustle is evident from Lisbon to Frankfurt. Everywhere European stewards welcome in millions of sightseers to enjoy the treasures of Western civilization. Never has life seemed so good.
Despite a public anti-Americanism, individual Europeans extend the old warmth and friendship to American visitors. Yet beneath the veneer of the good life, there is also a detectable air of uncertainty in Europe this summer, one perhaps similar to that of 1914 or the late 1930s.
The unease is apparent in newspapers and conversations on the streets that echo the view that voters and politicians want nothing to do with the European Union constitution. Perhaps the general European discomfort could be summed up best as the following: Why hasn't the good life turned out the way we wanted it to?
England, France and Germany are upping their retirement ages and/or planning pension cuts. They have given up the dream that workers in the future can quit at 55 or even 65!
The Iranians irk Europe. European governments sold them precision tools necessary for nuclear reactors. Many Europeans assured Tehran that dialogue, not rowdy Americans, alone can solve the "misunderstanding" over nuclear proliferation. But as thanks, Iran's pesky president talks down to these postmodern Europeans as if they were George Bush. Meanwhile, Iran presses ahead hoping to top off with nukes three-stage rockets that could reach the Vatican, the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate.
Frontline Spain clamors impatiently for the European Union to clamp down on illegal immigrants streaming across the Mediterranean. The utopian vision of a continent with porous borders is, for the time being, on hold at least as it pertains to Africa.
The Dutch, the French and the Danes are petrified about unassimilated Muslim radicals in their countries who have killed or threatened the most liberal of Europeans. Churches are almost empty. Mosques are being built; Italians wrangle over plans for one of the largest in Italy to be plopped amid the vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany.
A majority of polled Germans now believe that the pacifist Europeans are in a "clash of civilizations" with the Islamic world.
What is going on?
Good intentions that have gone sour.
The enemies of Europe's past responsible for everything from Verdun and Dresden to a constant threat of mutually assured destruction were identified as nationalism and militarism. Meanwhile, at home, Europeans cited cutthroat competition and unbridled individualism as additional contributory causes of the prior strife and unhappiness.
So in response to the errors of the past, Europeans systematically expanded the welfare state. They welcomed in immigrants. Politicians slashed defense spending, lowered the retirement age and cut the workweek. Voters demanded trade barriers to protect the public from the ravages of globalization. Either to enjoy the good life or to save the planet, couples forswore children.
But instead of utopia, unintended consequences ensued. Unemployment soared. Dismal economic growth, shrinking populations and a scarier world outside their borders followed.
Abroad, even the much-heralded "soft power" of a disarmed Europe could only bring attention to, not stop, the killing in Darfur. Meanwhile, China and India are no longer inefficient socialists but breakneck capitalist competitors. Indeed, they have thrown down the gauntlet to the Europeans: "Beware! Workers of the world who labor harder, longer and smarter deserve the greater material rewards!" In this new heartless global arena, apparently few will abide by the niceties of the European Union.
Publicly, Europe's frustrations are fobbed off on "crass Americans" and particularly George Bush. The Iraq war has poisoned the alliance, the Europeans insist. They contend that America's greedy consumers warm the planet, siphon off its oil and trample foreign cultures.
But in private, some Europeans will confess that the problem lies with Europeans, not us. Some brave soul soon is going to have to inform the European public: Work much harder and longer for less money; defend the continent on your own; move out of mama's house and start changing diapers and from now on expect far less from the state.
Who knows what the reaction will be to that splash of cold water? In response, what European populist will soon appear on the streets in Rome, Berlin or Madrid once again to deceive the public that it was someone else who caused these disappointments?
We in America should take note of the looming end of this once seemingly endless summer. We've been there, done that with this beloved continent all too many times before.