UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


The European Dream: An Alternative?

10 December 2015

Anna-Cara Keim, UCL SSEES

The myth of the American Dream is omnipresent in Western culture. Now often viewed as the ultimate epitome of neoliberalism as it strives for the ever-greater accumulation of wealth, fuelled by individualism, the idea of upward mobility and a sink-or-swim mentality. The general assumption is that if you work hard and you believe in yourself, you will be able to achieve something.

However, it has been suggested that the American Dream is very much a success story of the past and the ‘European Dream’ is in fact the American Dream of the twenty-first century. Unlike the American Dream, the European Dream emphasises quality of life, community relationships, cultural diversity, sustainable development and universal human rights (Rifkin, 2004). Moreover, Rifkin describes ‘the European dream as the first transnational dream to emerge in a global era.’ (p.23)

Rifkin’s work on the European Dream was published in 2004. With the large wave of the European Union’s fifth enlargement, Europe had overcome much of its internal divisions. At the same time, rapid integration of the European Union is and was accompanied by attempts to codify European values, which likewise aim to highlight the distinctiveness of European cultural and political values.

A number of Franco-German intellectuals (i.e. Habermas & Derrida, 2005) have repeatedly stressed that characteristics of ‘Europeanness’ as connected with the common European social and political project stand in stark contrast to the characteristics of the American capitalist society. The general emphasis was on Europe’s secular and social democratic/ socialist legacy as opposed to an American society, which is both deeply religious and capitalist. (Habermas & Derrida, 2005) Beck and Delanty present the idea of a Cosmopolitan Europe, in which Europeanisation is complemented by more democratisation – and not less (2006). They argue that Europeans ascribe greater importance to issues such as human rights, global justice, and social and economic securities than the Americans. Thus, the rift between the US and Europe is more likely to widen in the future.

The American anthropologist Borneman observes a clash between the economic globalisation as pursued by the US and the political globalisation as pursued by Europe – thus, constructing the US and not Asia or the Middle East as Europe’s Other. (Borneman, 2003) Another aspect of the concept of Beck’s and Delanty’s cosmopolitan Europe is that West-orientation in the global world has lost much of its meaning and that Europe should instead steer towards Asia where it could promote the biggest accomplishment of European modernity in a world of unfettered capitalism: a dynamic relationship between the market, the state and civil society. (2006, p.21)

The idea of the European Dream alongside some of the more theoretical notions of ‘Europeanness’ and Europeanisation presented above share the idea of a European social imaginary that is different from its American counterpart.

However, can the ‘European Dream’ maintain its appeal and uniqueness in a Europe challenged by debt crisis, refugee crisis and increasing public distrust?

All these social imaginaries emerged prior to the economic crisis of 2008 and during a time when American foreign and security policies in the aftermath of 09/11 were alienating much of Europe. Europe in 2015 is facing both internal and external challenges: It has seen disillusioned Greece vote for the leftist Syriza government as the debt crisis has seen many Greek citizens pushed towards the poverty line and the young in many other Southern European countries are facing similar economic problems. This has already prompted some of the European media to declare the death of the European dream. (e.g. Sunday Herald 05/07/2015 or CNN, 29/06/2015)

Other parts of Europe, most notably Hungary but also France, Finland or Poland have seen the rise of a Eurosceptic right which all share a tendency to blame chronic domestic political problems on Brussels. (The Economist, 29/05/2014) Last but not least, the refugees that have been arriving at Europe’s borders and shores in ever greater numbers in recent months have presented one of the biggest challenges to contemporary Europe. Ultimately, this might prove whether the ‘European Dream’ can stand the test of time - or not. Barbed wire fences have already begun to appear all over Europe. (The Guardian, 11/11/2015)

Perhaps Europe needs a revised version of the ‘European Dream’ – not only a transnational dream for the age of economic and political globalisation but also a dream that can withstand the challenges of global violence and crisis. Especially as the foundations of institutional Europe are standing on increasingly shifting ground (see Zielonka, 2014) it is vital that the social imaginaries that bind Europeans together are kept alive. However, whereas European intellectuals in the past have focused on the European values that distinguish Europe from its Others, it is essential for the future to look at those aspects of ‘Europeanness’ that connect all Europeans, regardless whether they live in Aberdeen or Bucharest. As the old Cold War divisions within Europe have disappeared, new divisions are threatening to emerge. Mixed responses to the ‘refugee crisis’ are creating new dividing lines in contemporary Europe. Thus, any future attempts to define the ‘European Dream’ should be looking inwards as well as beyond European borders to highlight what unites Europeans - and not what separates them. As we tend to observe the refugee crisis more from the perspective of the Europeans and less so from the view of the refugees, we have overlooked that the idea of the ‘European Dream’ may have a similar appeal to today’s refugees as the American Dream did at the beginning of the twentieth century for many Europeans.


Beck, U. & Delanty, G. (2006) ‘Cosmopolitan Europe’ in Delanty, G. ed. Europe and Asia Beyond East and West, Routledge, London & New York

Borneman, J. (2003) ‘Is the United States Europe’s Other?’, American Ethnologist 30(4):1–6

The Economist (29/05/2014) The Eurosceptic Union, The Economist http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21603034-impact-rise-anti-establishment-parties-europe-and-abroad-eurosceptic-union (last accessed 08/12/2015)

Habermas, J. & Derrida, J. (2005) ‘FEBRUARY 15, OR WHAT BINDS EUROPEANS TOGETHER: Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in Core Europe’ in Levy, D., Pensky, M. & Torpey, J. eds Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe; Transatlantic Relations after the Iraq War, Verso, London & New York

MacWirther, I. (05/07/2015) ‘The Death of the European Dream?’ The Sunday Herald, http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/13415770.Essay_of_the_week__The_death_of_the_European_dream_/ (last accessed 09/12/2015)

Rifkin, J. (2004). The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision For The Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., New York

Tisdall, S. (29/06/2015) ‘Is Europe Dead?’, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/19/opinions/is-europe-over-tisdall/ (last accessed 09/12/2015)

Traynor, I. (1/11/2015) ‘EU’s deep dilemmas over refugees laid bare at Malta summit’, The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/11/eus-deep-dilemmas-over-refugees-laid-bare-at-malta-summit (last accessed 08/12/2015)

Zielonka, J. (2014) Is the EU doomed?, Polity, Cambridge & Malden