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Europe’s Northern Lights

PARIS – “The Northern Lights” was the title of a major painting exhibition in Paris a few years ago, dedicated to Scandinavian masterpieces. But “northern lights” may also correspond to what Europe, if not the entire West, needs nowadays: a political, economic, social, and ethical model. Indeed, in becoming the first center-right leader in Sweden to win re-election in modern times, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt not only ended the centre-left’s electoral hegemony in his country, but revealed that the modern Scandinavian model of governance is relevant across Europe.

At a time when budget cuts are the order of the day, political power in Scandinavia is modest and generally honest. Women play a major role in society and politics, and have for a long time. Scandinavian capitalism has been traditionally more humane, and social injustice, though it exists, is much less destructive than in southern Europe, for example. Moreover, immigrants are generally treated with a greater sense of respect for their dignity.

To be sure, many other Europeans recognize these “virtues.” But their natural reaction is to say, “It’s not for us.” In order to practice Scandinavian virtues, many believe, you must come from a cold-weather country with a small, homogeneous population that accepts high taxes without grumbling.

One can behave in such a manner, many Europeans outside of Scandinavia say, only if one has been raised according to the Protestant ethic. For Greeks, Italians, and many French, evading taxes is a kind of national pastime, which some even perceive as a moral duty. Politics is a game, and power a drug that allows you to rise above ordinary citizens. And the temptation to consider oneself the incarnation of the state, rather than its servant, is often irresistible among southern European politicians.