“The transatlantic family is divided”

Article published on Aug. 15, 2005
Article published on Aug. 15, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Jeremy Rifkin, a leading American intellectual and author of several influential books including The European Dream, talks to café babel about the transatlantic relationship, terrorism and the future of the European constitution.

In the best tradition of American Europhiles such as George Kennan and George Ball, Jeremy Rifkin is a strong advocate of the European project of global consciousness. He is President of the Foundation on Economic Trends and a regular advisor to many European leaders, including the former President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi.

Is the transatlantic relationship still alive?

Today, the transatlantic family is divided: both shores of the Atlantic have different goals, approaches to life and dreams. The US is still focused on individual success and international geopolitics, which means behaving internationally like it is taking part in a zero-sum game. Europeans are instead focused on quality of life and “biosphere politics”, which means acting collectively to solve problems common to mankind. As an example of this, the US did not join Europe in issues like the Kyoto protocol and the International Criminal Court, because we define our national interest in a narrow way. There is a fundamental difference here. Still, I believe biosphere politics are gaining ground in the US. At the same time, Europeans can learn important values from Americans such as individual accountability, which is complementary to European core values such as social protection and quality of life. Indeed, Europe needs less paternalism and more American-like optimism; a willingness to take personal risks and hope. So here there is space for transatlantic dialogue.

Europe has been struck by Islamic terrorists twice since the September 11 attacks in 2001. Is the European strategy against terrorism failing vis-à-vis the American one?

There are many differences as well as similarities between the European and the American approach towards terrorism, not to mention national differences on this very same subject across Europe. Nonetheless, I do not believe that the European strategy is failing. Terrorists are just seizing the opportunity to act in Europe because is easier: terrorist cells are deeply embedded in Europe compared to the United States. This explains why the French and the British are trying to rally support among the Muslim communities in order to detect and completely isolate radical fundamentalists. Tough security measures, though necessary, cannot solve this problem in its entirety. In fact, there is not much that can be done from the outside. There is a necessity for deep internal reflection within the Muslim community, in order to stop radical fundamentalism from the inside. This effort can be also supported and sustained from the outside through an Erasmus generation-based initiative. I have already proposed to many European leaders a sort of European Peace Corps, a “European Welcome Corp”, which could be composed of former Erasmus students, who will be trained in NGOs to help the needy while sharing positive values with immigrants coming to Europe. That’s a challenge, and it will take a generation [for it to take root] but it will be worth the effort.

In your book The European Dream you were fairly optimistic about the future of Europe. Now, in the aftermath of the French and Dutch No to the constitution, the EU is facing a major crisis. Is there a way-out?

I am happy you brought up this topic. I believe the French No was mainly the product of domestic politics. Had President Chirac promised to resign if the Yes vote wins, I am almost certain the French would have voted Yes. Besides, it was a mistake putting the whole document, including the many technicalities, to the vote. It would have been much better just to vote on a core document, like the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Nevertheless, there is some good news here. For the first time, European politics generated great interest and discussion among the people. The problem, however, is that the French and the Dutch voted the wrong way. But don't not forget that two other countries that held popular referendums on the EU constitution, Spain and Luxembourg, voted Yes, as did many other countries through their parliaments.

Let’s not waste the momentum of the current debate in Europe over the constitution. We need bold initiatives so as not to stop discussion or remain in deadlock. I propose a non-elitist structured debate on core European issues, like the social model, the role of the market, jobs and enlargement. This debate should be organised at a regional level and include civil society groups and be sponsored, but not managed nor centralised, by Brussels. Experts should engage in discussion with ordinary citizens while politicians should mostly listen. In America, a similar experience took place during the Vietnam War, particularly in College campuses, among students, families and workers, to discuss and promote alternatives to the American Foreign Policy in South-East Asia. That was a great experience which had a concrete impact we all know about, and I believe such an initiative could engage Europeans in a discussion on their future.