For many liberals or leftists in the United States of America, "Europe" as a concept (if not as an actual place) represents the End of History. It represents the culmination of cultural and social progress, where a society is inclusive, tolerant and allows individual freedom of expression while also providing social welfare that objectively embetters people's lives. It is the perfect synthesis of individual rights and social cohesion, an endpoint of social development where objective, rational measures that everyone can agree on have overcome superstitious and parochial thinking. I could expand upon this definition, or correct me on some points, or give me more context on the development of Hegelian theory, etcetera. But in general, I think that this is a generally held, tacit belief by many in the American left, as well as by a subset of smug Europeans. A corroraly to this is that people who believe this on either side of the pond believe that America is behind Europe, that we are somehow a retarded version of Europe, that we somehow missed the chance to adopt their particular version of a secular, politely cultivated society, but that we will come around some day. I only realized this recently, and the realization is hitting me with astonishment: it is like a man in a sports car being offered a ride by a child pulling a wagon.
Lets put Europe in perspective. The idea of "Europe" as a secular, progressive and inclusive society works really well, as long as we remove all counter-examples. Lets get the first obvious counter-example out of the way. Within living memory, about three generation ago, the European continent, led by the Germans, decided the best way to defend their precious social cohesion was the systemic murder of its Jewish, Romani and Slavic (amongst others) population. This was led by one nation in particular, and while some countries objected, most of continental Europe either accepted this or actively supported it. But, of course, we have a thing called Godwin's Law: bringing up nazis isn't fair. So lets pretend that the history of Europe started in 1946. Most of Europe was living under Stalinist totalitarianism. But of course, Western Europe, what people mean when they talk about Europe, was doing fine. Except for Spain and Portugal, which were just a shade to the left of fascist during this period. Or Italy, which would be mired in corruption and political infighting for decades. The United Kingdom would be the site of a religious civil war through most of the post-war period, based on a religious conflict in Ireland. Growing up in a place where the difference between Catholic and Protestant was like preferring football or basketball, it was (and still is) incomprehensible to me that people were setting off car bombs in London over this matter of religion. But after the Fall of Communism, everything was going fine in Europe, right? Well, as long as ignore Yugoslavia, and the genocide in Bosnia. So you've gone almost thirty years without a genocide, what do you want, a cookie?. And finally, if we bring things to the present day, we've finally reached the promised End of History. As long as we ignore the Ukrainian Civil War, of course. Most of the idea of "Europe" only works if we manage to cut out geographically anything that ideologically doesn't accord with the idea of Europe. At which point, yeah, the tourist sections of Amsterdam and Copenhagen look pretty nice.
But lets say, to be fair, that after a long time, the European ideal has been achieved across wide parts of Europe, that currently, everywhere from Scandinavia to Iberia to the British Isles are actually living the dream. But have they really reached the end of history? Is their particular version of liberal democracy ready to spread throughout the world, and we will all be grateful for them as the vanguard? The problem here is that history doesn't exist in a vacuum. Historically, the most important thing to remember about Europe's development was it was based on colonialism. Along with the internal wars with itself, until the late 20th Century, European countries were fighting desperately to hold on to their colonies. Europe's development was built on the basis of subjecting the rest of the world, something that most advocates of European exceptionialism will admit. Although colonialism is gone, its basic problem for Europe still remains: Europe still lacks many natural resources, and its economy of services and advanced manufacturing is based on dependence on minerals, fuel and food from around the world. Europe's state of energy and food dependence don't speak to a society that has reached a level of static perfection, as much as it reflects a society with a very precarious wealth. Even if we took Europe's society to be internally consistent, it is threatened by exterior forces: climate change, resource scarcity, and social changes in the countries around it. All of which were on display in the ongoing Syrian Refugee Crisis, where the underdevelopment at Europe's periphery, exacerbated by climate change, caused a social crisis in Europe that put a lie to their myths of inclusion. The slight bubble of peace and prosperity that Europe had in the Post-War and Post-Cold War period will face new challenges. It is not an endpoint of history, as much as it is a breathing space in a history that is going to get weirder. Whatever cultural and social forms come about to deal with the environmental and social problems of the 21st century, it will not be just a different version of European society.
And finally, what would a static culture even look like? Beyond ideas of social and economic productivity, what are the internal pressures from that culture, pressures of expression, meaning and belief? Will even the most pleasant, equitable culture manage to satisfy people's need for meaning, and will they not seek out new and different forms of culture? This is especially significant given Europe's hunger for the United States' popular culture. I have been in discussions with Europeans who have chided me for banality of American culture---only to have the conversation change on a dime to express interest in the latest American TV series or movie (often which they don't understand the subtext of. What does European popular culture even look like? When was the last time the world was obsessed with a German television show or a French band? Outside of arthouse cinema and cheesy eletronic dance music, what culture does Europe produce that excites people's imaginations and leads them to new possibilities? Why is their ideal society unable to provide meaning?
There is all sorts of things that I like about the idea of Europe, from IKEA to its cathedrals to pedestrian friendly cities, but Europe, as an ideal, developed in a narrow range of circumstances, that can not be repeated elsewhere, and that will have to transform as the 21st century unfolds.