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El Pais, Spain

A Mirror in Washington

By Lluis Bassets

In Washington, willingness and compromise. In Brussels, unwillingness and nationalistic self-interest.

Translated By Jenny Westwell

14 February 2013

Edited by Mary Young

Spain - El Pais - Original Article (Spanish)

The union is strong. So said Obama, using the obligatory maxim, during the annual ritual that requires the president to sum up the state of the nation before Congress. The crisis has passed, though growth is still weak. Jobs must be created, and the government has plenty of ideas for tackling the task, whether the Republicans like it or not. Political will counts. Deficit reduction is not in itself an economic plan. Reasonable compromises have to be reached, and the interests of the whole must be placed above the interests of the constituent parts. Sequestration, a new deadline that would mean automatic, across-the-board spending cuts of $1.2 trillion dollars, looms on March 1. But the president’s intractability is there to block it. Exactly the opposite of what is happening on this side of the Atlantic.

In fact, the strength of the union, so well defined by its chief narrator Obama, is in direct proportion to the weakness of the Europeans’ union, and the president’s expression of political will and his promotion of job creation and growth stimuli inevitably lead us to see in this the total opposite of the long-term budget policies approved by the Council of the European Union scarcely three days earlier. Sequestration, a consequence of the fiscal cliff that the U.S. averted on Jan. 1, has already gone ahead in the EU. The sum of a pair of iron wills, which have differing ideological ends, but are similarly effective, has led to financial forecasts for the next seven years — until 2021 — that cut back the funds available to build Europe for the first time in history.

Obama has raised the bar for every aspect of his program and demonstrated his intention to apply it — through restrictions on firearms, immigration policy, the environment and, naturally, through defense of his healthcare reform and public investments to stimulate demand. The European leaders — if they can be referred to as such — having left Europe rudderless on so many occasions, have lowered the bar in the name of national interests (a euphemism for electoral interests) of the constituent parts that form the EU — of those who must be individually appeased, even to the detriment of the collective interest.

In Washington, willingness and compromise. In Brussels, unwillingness and nationalistic self-interest. Before all else, preserve the status quo: agricultural policy and regional grants. Immediately satisfy Ms. Merkel’s austerity policy and Cameron’s lack of commitment to Europe. Avoid the transfer union feared by the northern states and loosen the ties holding together the political union rejected by the Eurosceptics. At the same time, to avoid adverse coalitions, appease the leading players so that they can return home with at least one triumph to show the clientele. France salvages the agricultural policy. Spain will continue to be a net recipient of funding. Although Europe loses out, with a lower budget in a decade of recession, nothing matters as long as I don't lose out or can at least maintain the appearance of not having lost out.

Congress, with a powerful mandate, is what stands in Obama’s way, and he put pressure on it to avoid sequestration. The European Parliament, with its very weak mandate — though every so often it manages to put a stick in the wheels of the Council and the Commission — will also be pressured, by every one of the member states’ governments, into allowing the degrading cutting back of European ambitions that these financial forecasts represent. It is likely more difficult for Obama to exert pressure on a real parliament than for the European governments to do the same with one that is mostly a sham.

Washington does not only hold up a mirror to Brussels. It is in the interests of all Europeans, including those who fly the flag for restrictions, that Obama is successful and the U.S. economy grows, taking the global economy along with it. It is even more in Europe’s interest that the Transatlantic Trade Agreement should gain momentum. The project simultaneously announced by Obama in Washington and Barroso in Brussels aims to create the world’s largest free trade zone, providing a counterbalance to Washington’s commitment to Asia on the one hand, and on the other, compensating for the failure of the Doha Development Agenda, which was supposed to liberalize world trade but has been at an impasse since 2008.

The state of the union reveals, as always, that the U.S. has somebody willing to give good news to American citizens and to the world. That is why the union is strong. Nobody wants to give the Europeans good news: We just have to wait until it arrives from Washington. That is why our union is weak.



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