By Steve Kelman

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Guess what? Europeans like Europe

There is a group of American observers for whom "Europe" has four letters, not six. Europe, for these observers, summons images of people coddled to laziness by an over-generous welfare state, lacking any willingness to defend freedom or democratic values against attack. These associations, always present, come to the fore now and then, in such contexts as the silly "Freedom fries" (remember that?) hysteria at the beginning of the Iraq war, and now recently in fears that health care reform might, God forbid, bring "European-style" health care to the U.S.
I am currently in Sweden for a few days, and I have been struck by the tone of the annual meeting, going on now, of Sweden's Conservative Party, which is currently the largest party making up the country's right-of-center government. For many years in the recent past, the Conservatives have sometimes sounded (almost) like American critics of Europe, bemoaning sky-high taxes as diminishing Swedes' desire to work and preaching greater respect for traditional values.
The tone of the so-called "new Conservatives" -- this is what they are calling themselves -- has become very different. In a self-critical opening speech to the party congress, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said that Conservatives have often underrated the achievements of the Swedish welfare state and sold Sweden short. At the party congress, a big sign stood behind the podium reading, "Sweden -- Ahead of the Pack," a slogan long associated with the left-of-center Social Democrats who have ruled the country for most of the last 75 years. In an amazing newspaper ad, the Conservatives stated: "Sweden is fantastic. ... Our investment in work has financed a prosperty that all have shared. Our belief in equality and justice is well-known. ... We are a little country that makes a big difference."
Political observers here have noted that radical criticisms of the Swedish welfare state, and even the high taxes that pay for it, simply are not popular in Sweden, outside a relatively small group of true believers. Swedes, quite simply, seem basically to like the society they have. Indeed, many look at the U.S., with huge social inequalities and high levels of violence (perhaps the flip side of our entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to fight for our beliefs) as a country that could learn from Sweden, not vice versa.
This trend in Sweden is similar to what is going on in the U.K., where the Conservative Party has also sought to distance itself from criticisms of the welfare state. As has been noted to some extent in the U.S., all shades of political opinion in the U.K. have reacted with anger to the way the British National Health Service has been portrayed in the U.S. healthcare debate -- after all, Britain spends not much more than half as high a percentage of their Gross National Product on health care, without, overall, health results that are clearly worse than ours. (After an editorial stated that the handicapped British scientist Stephen Hawking would have been abandoned by Britain's "socialized" health care system, Hawkins himself responded that he owed his life to care he had received from the system.)
Maybe we need a little better undertanding, and a little less posturing, on both sides of the Atlantic?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 31, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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