February 4, 2012

Martin Klingst is Washington bureau chief of the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit.

Lately it seems that not a day goes by without a Republican presidential candidate portraying Europe as a socialist nightmare. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum paint a picture of the Old World as unfree, strangulated by bureaucratic and inefficient welfare systems, and unable to reform and modernize. To these Republicans, Europe seems to be the antipode to everything America is meant to be.

I understand that stump speeches are coarse and that, to Republican candidates, Europe must be bad because President Obama occasionally praises some of its achievements, such as universal health care or the “green” revolution.

I also know there is an American tradition of holding up the Old World as an example of all that is wrong and corrupt. There is, unfortunately, a more recent European custom of blaming the United States for all that is perverse and profane. Moreover, there are good reasons to worry about Europe’s fiscal calamities, which stem in part from the unaffordable benefits for its citizens. It is understandable that some on this side of the Atlantic fear that the European debt crisis could drag the slowly recovering U.S. economy under.

But when Romney, Gingrich and Santorum warn about “socialist Europe,” they sound as though they are talking about the Soviet empire, which vanished long ago. Europe is the European Union, a modern entity of 27 democratic countries that, despite many commonalities, greatly differ in history, culture, language, sociology and politics. Europe is difficult to comprehend, but viewing it through a single lens is like calling the United States a Third World nation because there are very poor areas in the South where some people live in shacks or have little access to health care or where some schools are corridors of shame.

My problem as a European living in the United States is that it is not Joe the Plumber who is bashing Europe but three longtime politicians who want to be president — people who should know better. Wasn’t Mitt Romney a missionary in France? Hasn’t he spoken fluent French since the late 1960s? I do not recall any important European politician who ran for prime minister or president and pilloried the United States in the same manner. Even when German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came out against the imminent Iraq war before seeking reelection in 2002, the rhetoric was muted in comparison.

It is not necessary here to define socialism or to detail the many distinctions between a state-run economy and a social democracy based on a ­free-market system. But those who seek to be president of a global superpower — and may perhaps one day sit at a table with leaders of the Old World — should know a few things:

All 27 E.U. members believe, more or less, in mandatory health-care insurance and public education. They believe that government should offer a helping hand to struggling businesses and people during economic downturns. That is why we pay high taxes. It is also true that a number of E.U. countries have irresponsibly expanded their welfare systems and can no longer afford their bills.

But some countries have carried out necessary economic reforms, engineered their comeback and managed the storm of the Great Recession quite well. To some extent they can now present better results than the United States. Germany, for example, raised its retirement age to 67 and drastically reformed its social safety net, lowering labor costs to businesses. Thanks to government subsidies, German enterprises were able to keep their skilled workers employed during the recession. When business picked up again, the labor force was in place and the economy more competitive. Unemployment is at a 20-year low of about 6 percent.

Several European states run their mandatory health-care systems more efficiently and at lower cost than the United States while guaranteeing every citizen access to affordable and up-to-date services. The population’s health remains an important economic factor. Moreover, while the national debt is disastrous in Greece or Italy, debt remains at a much more responsible level in Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Romney pointed out in New Hampshire last month that, despite the economic downturn, the average U.S. worker still takes home a bigger monthly paycheck than the average European (and even the average German, who makes more than, say, Romanians). That’s true, but the comparison doesn’t take into account the much greater wealth gap in the United States nor the fact that Americans have to spend larger portions of their income on medical care and education.

A college education is still free in most Old World countries and produces generally better results than in the United States. The Program for International Student Assessment study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, released in December, shows that high school students in a number of E.U. countries scored better in reading, math and science than their U.S. counterparts. Another OECD report shows that it is much easier for Germans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Spaniards to climb the socioeconomic ladder than Americans. That’s a stark reversal from the time when greater social mobility was a main reason so many Europeans flocked to the land of opportunity.

Comparing data across societies is risky because cultural and social differences may not be reflected. Yes, pendulums swing. But framing Europe simply as inflexible and outdated, or backward and socialistic, is shortsightedand wrong. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum should know as well as anyone that the globe is no longer flat.