David Evers, Ed Dammers and Aldert de Vries wrote this dystopian scenario in 2004 as part of their work in a spatial scenarios project exploring futures for Cohesion Policy. It was not published. It reflects their personal views and not those of their employers or of the ESPON Montoring Committee or EGTC.
Impression of 2030
A sense of impending doom has overwhelmed me ever since I was selected to give a briefing at the Spatial Redevelopment Conference in Bucharest. There had been some consternation about the recent decision to impose sanctions for alleged misuse of EU subsidies, and it was my task to explain the procedures for this. Since I had no car, it would be a long and arduous 3-day journey from Amsterdam to the Romanian capital. Patience would be needed especially at border crossings where both time and train would grind to a screeching halt. The personnel of the next company would then board, selling tickets for their territory and offering limited package deals and tax-free items. As much as the train seemed to symbolize archaic technology and epitomize inconvenience, the prospect of flying did not seem much more inviting: the lack of adequate and common safety standards, coupled with the ‘race to the bottom’ in airfares had brought about the worst accidents in aviation history. Ironically none of these were terrorist related: ever since the United States had taken over European homeland security such incidents had been sporadic at best.
The morning of my departure began auspiciously. I found a taxi company willing to take me to the notorious Station District in Amsterdam at no extra charge. As we raced down the lurid Amstel Expressway a light rain punctuated the desolation of the area, once so replete with cultural monuments but now despoiled by malevolent ‘teens neo-modern architecture. Centraal Station loomed grotesquely in the background as I braced myself in grim anticipation for the days to come, the pen-sized stungun in my jacket pocket offering only limited solace.
Later, from the elevated train tracks, I gaze out onto a morose ocean of architecture, geometrical forms stretching far beyond the horizon. Cities sprawl hideously outwards into suburbs where gargantuan highways, garish shopping centers and squat stripmalls announce the arrival of a new city. The fiscal crisis of ’21 had forced the Dutch government, like so many others in Europe, to sell off the best of its natural areas for development: most have become gated communities of some kind. I wouldn’t be seeing this kind of urban landscape again until I reached Bayern, past the vast industrial wasteland and agribusiness parks that still dominated most of western Germany. And the first glimpse of unspoiled nature would not be until Austria (seceded from the EU) but then quickly dashed after descending into Romania with its abandoned business parks, endless industrial estates and highways permanently under construction. As the landscape slipped by, I was gripped by a profound melancholy tinged with regret: Whatever happened to the Europe we once knew? Whatever happened to our hopes and dreams? How did we ever let it go so wrong?
The geography of Europe has been fundamentally altered by various socioeconomic developments and government policies. As regards trends, since 2015, economic development in the Pentagon has stagnated — in part under the weight of increased taxation and decreased community investment — while the highly subsidized new member states have failed to develop to expectations. By 2030 the total GDP growth in Europe was less than 1%. On balance, regional disparities have decreased slightly. The most successful regions however are the top locations and urban extensions with international allure (e.g. London, Paris, Frankfurt) that increasingly resemble one another. Countries with a favorable natural climate also fared better than the rest: Spain having become a retirement colony for wealthy Chinese.
The course of urbanization has also taken a new turn by 2030. Metropolitan regions, especially within the Pentagon, have stretched out so far that they begin to touch at their extremities. In some areas there is no visible distinction between city and countryside anymore, but instead a vast amorphous urban field. Socially, however, there is great variation. Traditional city centers continue to act as ports of entry for immigration, and offer cheap if dilapidated accommodation and usually social connections from the country of origin. Life is hard, brutal and short in these areas, work hard to come by and crime rampant. Unsurprisingly, these areas are shunned by suburban dwellers and forsaken by policymakers (who prefer to serve those who actually vote). The social rift between the “old Europeans” (in both senses of the word) and newcomers has eroded solidarity and fuelled the rise of xenophobia and radicalized political parties that cater to the fears of the suburban population. In the great cities, monumental buildings and public spaces are allowed to decay, get demolished or succumb to hasty redevelopment schemes, further effacing the last vestiges of cultural heritage from collective memory.
Once outside of the more urbanized regions, past the strip malls and power plants, densities thin out to solitary McMansion schemes and exclusive gated communities (with private airport, of course). Beyond these lies only the countryside firmly in the control of large-scale agribusiness. Outside the Pentagon, in areas once considered the periphery of Europe, the territorial situation is quite different. The landscape is marked by bold but failed attempts to rejuvenate the economy through public investments in industry and infrastructure. Abandoned factories and highway exits to empty business parks — oftentimes only half built — are a familiar sight. The 6-lane “East-European Expressway” highway project stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria is still incomplete, over budget and fraught with political difficulties regarding the route. Freight traffic continues to be transported by roadway in Europe, and has made passenger traffic by car nothing less than maddening in congested areas. Border controls have exacerbated this, particularly regarding the Swiss-Austrian reintroduction of freight tariffs in 2020.
The environment has particularly suffered in the past 20 years. Natural areas have been cut apart by infrastructure and other urban functions, leading to a loss of biodiversity in particularly the Pentagon. In terms of energy production, fossil fuels remain predominant, despite their expense and coal the predominant form of producing electricity. Most motorists have scented designer-oxygen pumps installed in their cars, and most new homes and offices are equipped with safe-air systems. Alternative energy production, as far as it exists in Europe, has focused on nuclear power, and the ever so elusive fusion technology. Power plants dot the countryside, and, as usual, are concentrated on national borders.
The somber new geography of Europe sketched above did not occur by happenchance. A variety of forces conspired over time to create it, much of which could have been avoided, mitigated or stopped. If certain individuals and organizations had reacted in time and pooled their efforts instead of miring themselves in parochial infighting, the new Dark Age would be a subject of hack science fiction writers instead of the most recent chapter of European History.
The economic stagnation in 2030 is not an incidental downswing but the result of a structural decline in competitiveness in this part of the world. For decades, the EU has failed to keep step with the United States in the development and application of new technologies, and has seen itself overtaken by Asia. Clinging to outmoded concepts, national governments attempted to keep industrial production in Europe and were cleverly played off against one another by increasingly rootless multinationals. Continual conflicts between labor unions and the business community did little to help the situation. Eventually, the outsourcing of production, R&D and services to Asia and elsewhere was eventually followed by innovation. By the 2020s Europe was experiencing a brain drain of skilled workers to not just North America and Australia but also China, India and Southeast Asia. Less fortunate Europeans availed themselves of new technologies to smuggle themselves into these countries illegally, being replaced by even less fortunate exiles from war-torn parts of the developing world. On balance, throughout Europe, there has been a population decline caused by emigration, increasing infant mortality and lower life expectancy. Thus, demographically, the composition of the European population is unfavorable for economic progress: a steady increase of elderly citizens beyond the working age.
The splintered European territory is also the result of a breakdown in European governance structures at a more local level. Urban agglomerations were gripped in fierce competition creating a ‘race to the bottom’ as regards public benefits. This “every man for himself” mentality hampered spatial coordination, creates spatial mismatches in the housing market and an oversupply of commercial facilities and business parks. Lack of coordination in transport and other public services was brought about and intensified by ongoing privatization without clear rules or standards.
Citizens have also lost faith in the EU as an institution. The myriad scandals are not the cause but symptomatic of the lack of solidarity and collective vision. This was already evident at the beginning of the Century with the first Eastward expansion in 2004. Since that time, a visible East/West dichotomy has emerged in European politics. The Constitution, when finally ratified in 2008, contained so many bizarre politically motivated exceptions (usually unavoidable for the referendum) that the procedures had lost all clarity, institutions had been cast into disarray and awkward decision making rules and red tape had made any effective governance at EU level virtually impossible. Over the past decades the EU has acted haphazardly and inconsistently, contradicting itself in time and over space (sectoral policies conflicting with one another, and being continually revised), and losing credibility even among its most ardent supporters. The expansion to include Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey and the Balkans in a desperate attempt to acquire some enthusiastic member states backfired: within two years the United Kingdom and Austria seceded from the political Union, but retained their free market ties. Others threatened to follow suit, such as Denmark, Spain, Sweden and Hungary, but were ultimately placated by tax concessions. Regional identities were heightened and some separatist movements rekindled (Ireland, Basque, Catalonia) and the Balkans plunged into civil war. By 2020 the European Union was a laughable shadow of its former self, its ideals all but extinguished and ambitions forgotten.
Perhaps the most discouraging thing about the wretched state of Europe in 2030 is that it is partly the consequence of its own policies. To a significant extent, the EU was unwittingly the author of its own demise.
Rather than streamlining its budgets for agriculture and regional policy, for example, the EU allowed it to swell to unmanageable proportions. Bowing to political pressure from farmers, agricultural aid was given mainly as production-based subsidies. This transformed the European countryside into the monotonous unpopulated expanse it is today. More importantly, the money allocated to these areas of policy necessitated cuts in more pressing matters.
Enlargement of the EU was carried out largely for political reasons, and little was done to integrate these new areas into the Union, except for lavishing subsidies upon them. Furthermore, the criteria for regional policy became evermore convoluted and opaque, offering ample opportunities for corruption and further estranging net-payer member states. Rather than injecting EU funds into regions with potential, money continued to be cynically channeled to the poorest regions with unwanted and useless prestige projects such as the East-European Expressway.
The shift in priorities to regional aid and agriculture, coupled with a loss of income with the departure of several affluent member states, necessitated cutbacks in other areas. One of the first victims was transport policy. Many projects begun with EU funding, such as in border regions, were discontinued. This was particularly devastating to the rail system, as national companies turned inwards and refused to cooperate with companies outside their borders. Ultimately, this stifled international trade, and shifted freight transport to the already overburdened roadway network.
Policies engineered to foster economic competitiveness also fell prey to budget cuts. The Lisbon strategy still fresh in memory, the EU cut all R&D funding in 2010. This was followed by the brain-drain of qualified professionals and aging of the population which was to characterize the following two decades. Nor did the EU find it necessary to draw up a strategy to curb this outflow or to attract a more youthful population base. Instead, faith was placed in the free market to provide growth. Underscoring this philosophy was a Directive which mandated that the last remaining public services be privatized. Unfortunately, it failed to include adequate safeguards against market failures or guidelines on implementation. The resulting private-sector monopolies without sufficient accountability encouraged widespread collusion and corruption. Competition policy was inconsistently applied, sending mixed messages to the business community and producing a lucrative black market. The establishment of protectionist measures at the Community level (introduced to placate European industry) also stifled overall trade, and dampened economic development.
The most ironic of all policy outcomes was environmental policy. In 2010, the EU embarked on the most ambitious ecological project in history, enacting legislation intended to safeguard biodiversity once and for all on the European Continent and reduce pollution by 30%. Unfortunately, these rules scared away potential foreign investors and accelerated off-shoring processes. The economy collapsed, and within years these same environmental laws were repealed in a failed attempt to lure these businesses back. This, coupled with generous incentives extended to industry — such as the designation of various Export Processing Zones — had the effect of creating an oversupply of industrial business parks, poor labor conditions and ultimately even increased pollution.
In addition to the ill effects produced by these misguided policies were unintended consequences of their interaction. For example, agriculture subsidies conflicted with environmental habitats and regional development policy conflicted with competition policy. Attempts to mitigate these via spatial policy via the ESDP and information about the spatial effects of policy were absent, as both these endeavors were discontinued after 2010. This proved decisive in cementing public opinion of the European Union as an inefficient, ineffective and non-transparent institution.
Dark Age Ahead highlights a number of important issues which draw attention to various driving forces that could lead to undesirable outcomes, and the policies which intensify or fail to counter these forces. It emphasizes that policy itself can be a contributing factor to an undesirable future. Specific issues in this scenario include:
- Stagnating economy, divestment in R&D
- Regional policy channeled to poorest regions
- Deterioration of infrastructure in Pentagon
- Disintegration of the EU/administrative gridlock
- Environment, nature and landscape despoiled after rescinding excessively protective measures
- Contradictions flare up between sectoral EU policies, abandonment of spatial/territorial policy coordination efforts
David Evers is a researcher in the Netherlands Environmental Protection Agency and the ESPON Contact Point for The Netherlands.