Listening to all the gloom and doom on the news these days, I sometimes catch myself actually starting to feel sorry for people living in Europe. Then I tell myself: I must be mad. Even with a crisis, Europeans still enjoy just about the safest, healthiest and wealthiest lives on the planet.
According to the UN human development index (HDI), which measures life expectancy, literacy, education levels and standards of living in a country, six of the 10 most developed nations in the world are in Europe.
And when the HDI takes into account inequality, nine out of the 10 best-performing nations are European, proof that the old continent has been the most effective in creating the least stratified societies.
I realise the 24 per cent of unemployed Greek citizens might take issue with being told they are lucky to live in Europe. But in 2011, after four years of recession, Greece still had a higher GDP [gross domestic product] per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP) than any country in South America and Africa as well as most of Asia, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). None of the much-touted Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) has a GDP per capita even close to that of the European “sick man”.
Some suggest Europe is no longer able to compete with the strongest emerging economies. At the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of this year, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, sounded alarmist tones, saying that “Europe’s lack of competitiveness is its Achilles heel”.
But according to a ranking of that same World Economic Forum, six out of the 10 most competitive economies in the world are in Europe. The most competitive of the Brics count is China, at 29.
Cheap, easy-to-fire labour is not the only thing you need to attract investors. It helps when you have quality infrastructure, a transparent and efficient administration, the rule of law and low levels of corruption.
Maybe that is why despite all the gloomy news coming out of the Eurozone last year, Europe still attracted $426 billion (Dh1.56 trillion) in foreign direct investment, compared to the combined $279 billion that flowed to the Brics.
Countries such as China and India are making laudable progress, but most of their citizens still live in the kind of crippling poverty unimaginable in the European Union (EU). The Brics are decades away from catching up with Europe, much less overtaking it. This is no cause to be smug, but it is cause for less self-doubt.
Also, Europe is often compared with the US and, yes, per capita income there is higher than in the EU, but the average Joe is not necessarily better off in Florida than in Florence.
Per capita income does not reflect income distribution. If Warren Buffett strolled into Stamford Bridge in the middle of a Chelsea game, by average income calculations, everybody in the stadium would be a millionaire.
Considering the fact that in the US, income distribution is heavily skewered towards a privileged minority, one needs to be particularly careful with the per capita figures in this case.
The US offers more opportunity to the gifted, the entrepreneurial and the rich than Europe does. But those who do not fall into those categories are better off in Europe. Were the average American blue-collar worker to see how his German, Dutch or British peers live, and the quality of health care and education accessible to them, he might start wondering if his country is indeed “the greatest nation on earth”, as American politicians love to say. And let us not forget that US national debt is more than 100 per cent of its GDP compared to the 83 per cent for the EU, even with its often derided “welfare state”.
Of course, there are some large territories such as Canada and Australia that also offer a good life, but their relatively small populations (all less than, say, Poland) require they be compared with particular EU countries and not the whole continent.
The level of development Europe has attained is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. One of the main reasons for this success is that the continent has been remarkably well governed. In every society, it is those at the top who set the tone and, as someone who grew up in Nigeria, I have seen first-hand how poor governance can rubbish a country and keep it from realising its potential.
That’s why I appreciate Europe’s leaders more than those who have not experienced government elsewhere. I do think it is excellent practice that Europeans constantly complain about their countries and demand improvements to how they function. To do otherwise would be to forego aspirations to progress.
However, Europeans should never forget that most people in this world will give anything to be able to live like them. So those who are lucky enough to be citizens of the closest thing to “paradise on Earth” should be more appreciative of what they have and less depressed about the future of the European continent.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Remi Adekoya is the politics editor of Warsaw Business Journal in Poland.