Japan, Carthage and managing decline


On my daily walk along the foggy river Thames this morning I listened to the latest Economist podcast from one of their special surveys - this one was all about Japan. It started with this little teaser from Henry Tricks:

"People seem to be increasingly comfortable with the idea that Japan can go into a sort of genteel decline, which will keep up a reasonably comfortable way of life and will not involve Japan having to engage too much with the outside world."

At our recent ECFR Council Meeting in Brussels I was aware of a greater degree of debate than at the previous Meeting last year. One obvious reason is that there are now so many more vital issues to debate in Europe: the € crisis; Germany; rising powers elsewhere; a loss of global competitiveness; a looming pension crisis; a breakdown of the accepted processes of eastwards expansion; a massive readjustment of budgets across Europe. Japan, many years further down the deflationary path that some warn might be Europe's own fate in coming decades, has, it seems, come to terms with a similar debate and decided that a managed - genteel - decline is the way forward.

Perhaps that's an easy enough choice for the established voice of an aging generation to make. Perhaps it's less easy for younger generations, paying for more expensive pensions and without the prospects for growth that their parents enjoyed. A bit like in the debate over climate change, the more distant the costs and benefits, and the less established the voice affected, the harder it is to account for.

This generation aspect of the debate was recently covered (in the British context) in an excellent book by the Conservative politician David Willetts called 'The Pinch'. As with many excellent books, however, it raises even more questions than it answers. Questions that I hope Europe's thinkers, politicians and electorates engage with as they try to work out the direction that Europe is headed in.

I am reassured that this debate really is sparking into life across Europe. What is defence for? What kind of economies should we have in 2050? What is the role of public services? What role should nations play within the EU and the EU within nation states? What responsibilites come with membership of the EU and of the €?

If we don't have a meaningful debate, then we need to be reminded that nothing is permanent. Although it's an example of a more dramatic decline than that facing Japan or Europe, I'm off tomorrow to visit a potent reminder of the decline and fall of empire - Carthage. Don't worry Europe, you're not there yet!


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