The coming European renaissance

The unspeakable in flight of the uneatable. One of the sad scenes of today’s Europe does not even take place in continental Europe, and does not even look sad. It happens every Friday afternoon at London’s Saint Pancras railway station as young expats from the continent joyfully board the Eurostar train on their way home for the week-end. They are all smiles, but the scene is nonetheless heartbreaking: why did these young and energetic graduates, some of the best the continent’s universities have trained in science, technology, finance and entrepreneurship, feel compelled to cross the Channel to deploy their talents? Sure, it is a great idea to try your luck abroad, but then the flux should be symmetric. Today, it is largely one-way.

That flux will stop. With Brexit, Britain has condemned itself to irrelevance. What a mournful end for one of the greatest civilizations in the history of humankind, which gave us both Newton and Darwin, as well as habeas corpus and the concept of individual liberty [1]! Faced with an obvious choice between grandeur and decline, a majority of Britons voted for decline and there is no going back. The word “Brexit” was coined to mean “British Exit”; there is no mention of Europe in it, an appropriate omission since Britain did not really choose to exit Europe, it chose to exit the modern world. The best that can now happen to it is that Britain keeps its oil and becomes something like Norway. Even that is not certain; the Scots may decide otherwise.

For a while I felt awfully sorry for my British friends and colleagues. They do not deserve this. Of course they did not vote for Brexit — no one with an ounce of reason did — but they have to suffer the consequences. On the other hand things may not be so bad in the long term. Many of them are Europhiles already; they will just move to more auspicious climes. Already the British are pumping up Paris real estate [2].

In the US, the tragic buffoonery goes on. Some days are more buffoon, others more tragic, but the destruction of one of the most successful societies on earth has started, and even though a majority of Americans are horrified with what is happening to their country the movement seems impossible to reverse because of the particular political system to which the US has now arrived. We may call it gerrycracy: democracy bridled by gerrymandering  (plus the Supreme Court). This system, although a recent invention in its current form, is designed to be self-reproducing, a phenomenon compounded by the evolution of the dominant party, which seems to have lost any sense of decency. The country’s greatness will not disappear in one day or one year; all that the world admires in the US, from Stanford and Harvard and MIT to the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Review of Books to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Silicon Valley and Tesla is still up and churning. But the trajectory is set: downhill.

The programmed self-immolation of these two intellectual and economic powerhouses, depressing as it is, provides an extraordinary opportunity for Europe [3]. Here is a mosaic of democracies sharing an acute determination to do everything in their power to ensure that the horrors of their past will never occur again. People in Europe (not just the French) complain all the time, but they have, overall, the best deal in the entire world. Bewildering cultural riches, a non-extreme climate at least so far, decent economic standards, good-quality and largely free education, well-functioning basic services, a social safety net, tolerance for minorities, recognition of private enterprise, the rule of law… Where else on earth?

Europe has its challenges. Those of us who admire Macron’s bravado in inviting (in English) US scientists and engineers to come to France, and who also know how things work in European universities and business, are a little nervous. Convincing as the appeal is, it requires a serious redesign of the European university system and a concerted attack on the bureaucratic shackles and societal pettiness that stifle European creativity at all levels. It is doable. If someone like Macron could overcome the assault of demagogues and defeatists from the left and the right to get elected, he can start, with his counterparts in other European countries, to address the structural problems that hinder European progress. The context is right: the main countries have adults at the helm (in Germany this will remain true whether we get Merkel or Schulz) and the winds of optimism are blowing again. While Europe faces other major issues, present in the headlines everyday and hard enough on their own, the main challenge is economic: Europe needs to get richer. It is remarkable how much more smoothly a society functions, and how much happier people sound, when there is enough money going around. Just look at Switzerland. Macron and some of his international colleagues are the kind of strong and pragmatic leaders who understand this goal. They will also benefit, if Europe does not falter in its collective negotiating strategy, from a welcome windfall: the many billions that the UK will have to pay to disengage from its obligations. They should invest that money where it can make a difference: not the traditional European pork barrels, but science and technology, where it will catalyze Europe’s growth and wealth.

While the US and the UK are wasting their time, energy and money on non-problems, unimportant problems and self-inflicted problems, on building Maginot walls, on investing in technologies of the past and on closing themselves off from the sources of their own future, Europe should work on what matters. It should, and I think it will, at least as long as the King Ubu in the White House doesn’t get us into WW3 in response to some disagreeable tweet.

In forthcoming articles I will provide more detailed analyses of the various points sketched here. And yes, I know this venue started out as a technology blog and I will continue to talk about void safety, effective concurrent programming and how to verify programs. But the stakes are too high for scientists and engineers to stay neutral. Through what we know, see and understand, it is our duty to help Europe and with it the rest of humankind.

It could just work. I cannot wait for the scene at Paris’s Gare du Nord, a few years from now, on the typical Friday evening: lads and gals from London and Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, eager to go home and get their hands on some fish and chips, but ready to return on Sunday night to resume their cheerful part in the new European renaissance.

 

References

[1] A remarkable  symbol of personal liberty is Blonde’s answer to Osmin, the head of the Janissaries who attempts to subdue her in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (from 1782, seven years before the French revolution!): Ich bin eine Engländerin, zur Freiheit geboren (I am an Englishwoman, born to freedom). Blonde is not even the opera’s heroine but her servant.

[2] Brexit and the “Macron effect” are attracting the British to Paris (in French), in Le Monde, 31 May 2017, available here.

[3] Britain having officially thumbed its nose at Europe, we should from now on use the term to denote the continental part.

[4] Macron’s speech is available here, particularly from 1:34.

VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 7.8/10 (4 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
The coming European renaissance, 7.8 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.