How GOP candidates get Europe wrong

The state of the European economy has become something of an issue in our presidential campaign. So just how bad ARE things over there? We asked Allen Pizzey to check it out:

Springtime brings out the best in Europe - the cafes move out into the street, all the better to absorb the history that surrounds you.

The recession is biting here, just as it is everywhere. It's just that Europeans seem to have a way of getting by - unless you look at them from the Republican presidential hopefuls' point of view.

"We're increasingly becoming like Europe. Europe isn't working in Europe. It will never work here," said Mitt Romney

"I think you're looking at European socialism, at a minimum," said Rick Santorum.

Which got us to wondering . . . just how bad IS that?

Germany has a 5.5 percent unemployment rate, an immense export surplus, and world-leading innovative companies. And its economic system, according to former U.S. ambassador John Kornblum, is closer to what the U.S. was in President Eisenhower's time than it is to socialism.

"The governments of Europe - and especially in this country, Germany - could probably be given credit for writing half of the Republican economic policy," said Kornblum. "They believe in low taxes, saving, low government expenditures, no deficits."

The candidates are dealing in caricatures of Europe that are about 90 percent wrong, in the view of American University of Rome Professor James Walston. "They are trying to smear opponents by using the socialism word, when what is actually present in Europe is something, is social democracy, and not even that," he said.

But if you're a candidate who wants to move to the White House, why worry about details?

"I am for the Constitution; he is for European socialism," said Newt Gingrich.

"He wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state," said Romney.

Such talk certainly resonates with young European voters like Anica Petrovic, but not quite in the way the candidates have in mind.

"I just hope most Americans are just more intelligent than those politicians," said Petrovic.

One of the things that bemuses people here is the GOP candidates' references to "Europe" and "European socialism," as if they were talking about a single amorphous entity.

In fact, Europe - in the form of the European Union - is 27 countries, each with its own language, culture, and social system.

"If you want to see America after the Obama administration is through, just travel around, just read up on Greece. Read up on Portugal. Read up on France," said Santorum.

European nations have seen riots over benefit cuts, their fair share of foreclosures, and long unemployment lines. And the "cradle to grave" social welfare systems set up more than 60 years ago do have to be drastically trimmed to fit changing economic times, but not to the extent of REMOVING the safety net.

"There is a presumption that health care should be guaranteed, there should be a minimum of health care which the government, which the community provides," said Walston.

And it's for EVERYBODY. Even a tourist who ends up in an ambulance in Italy can expect full and comprehensive care, and no one will demand to see an insurance card first, or send a bill then it's over.

Universal health care is a concept that Berlin artist Madeleine Krakor says she wouldn't want to live without.

"It's a big part of feeling secure, really secure," said Krakor, "because you always know that whatever happens - if you don't have any money to buy some noodles - you are safe."

There was a time when Europe's youth and aspiring middle class saw America as a shining beacon of opportunity. But it's no longer seen as the ultimate career and lifestyle improvement.

"In Northern Europe they're looking at the United States and say, 'Boy, I'm happy to be HERE,'" said Kornblum, "because unemployment is much lower, job security is higher, education is free, medical care is comprehensive, and so they have to be fairly adventurous to believe that they would be better off in the United States than they are here right now."

And if they did decide to come to America, some of the presidential candidates would have to drastically alter their perceptions (to say nothing of their rhetoric) to win their votes.