London — Is Europe in decline? The question has attracted a lot of attention, both here and in the United States. The evidence of decline is apparent: high unemployment, falling purchasing power, a shortfall in the development of high-technology products, and formidable energy bills that must be paid in expensive US dollars.
But Sir William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of The Times (London) and a longtime student of European and American affairs, has a refreshingly different view. Looking to the northeastern corner of the United States for his analogy, he says that ''We're where New England was 20 years ago.''
It's an intriguing thesis. New England, with Boston as its flagship, was once the economic and cultural center of the United States. By World War I, however, the ''Athens of America'' had ceded predominance to New York. In the period between the wars, the twin pillars that had underpinned the region's economy since the Industrial Revolution - textile and shoe manufacturing - tottered and finally fell. By the 1950s New England had come to resemble the dinosaur fossils that lay beneath its soil - outmoded, cumbersome, and too heavy to survive. Once quaint and antique, New England was simply old.
Or so it seemed to those who failed to foresee its phoenix-like rebirth. In the last 30 years, high-technology companies have mushroomed up in what was once pastureland. White-collar service-sector firms - dealing in insurance, finance, real estate, engineering, publishing, and a multitude of similar areas where the products are not things but ideas - have crowded into the region's urban office space. By most measures, New England is now thriving. Massachusetts, for example, enjoys one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. The region may not have the Sunbelt's heady prospects for growth; but neither is it about to wither away.
Why the success? Many observers point to a kind of Yankee ingenuity that couples large-minded idealism with down-to-earth pragmatism, vigorous innovation with steadying traditionalism, and a willingness to invest with a penchant for thrift. They point, too, to the region's exceptional concentration of colleges and universities, and to its heavy reliance on the gathering, processing, and disseminating of information.
And therein lies Sir William's analogy. Europe, once the richest region of the world, has seen world leadership shift westward toward the Pacific Rim - so much so that its institutions may appear, just now, to be little more than fossils. But that, in Sir William's view, is simply a phase. ''Europe is not going to emerge like California as an area of extraordinarily rapid growth,'' he says. But he adds that ''equally it's not going to fail.'' Why? Because of what he calls ''the European advantages'' of culture, of education, and of information. Just as, in the 1950s, ''people were failing to see the point of what New England had to offer,'' so, he says, they are now missing the real promise of Europe.
To be sure, there are significant differences between Europe and New England. New England's workers are far more willing to relocate than their European cousins - partly because of a different sense of community and partly because of Europe's tighter housing market. New Englanders, too, seem more willing to take risks - in part because failure, in some areas of Europe, is socially unacceptable. And New Englanders, despite their jokes about the ''People's Republic of Massachusetts,'' have not yet had their self-reliance challenged by socialism to the same degree that Europeans have.
But the analogies remain. Europe, like New England, has a concentration of educational institutions. Like New England, too, its culture is deeply rooted in sophisticated exchanges of information. And like New England, Europe may be propelled into change by the collapse of its heavy industries. It may no longer be possible for many Europeans (in Sir William's words) to ''earn a living by bashing a big bit of metal.'' Like New Englanders, they are having to learn to live by their wits - selling ideas, services, and highly refined innovations. If the analogy is correct - if, as Sir William says, these aspects are the important ones for the 21st century - then Europe's decline may not be that of a dinosaur but of a phoenix.