The US Shutdown: Lessons for Europe

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Europe should ask itself a couple of questions about the shutdown of the US federal government and the debate about the debt ceiling. What can or should we learn from the last fortnight in American politics? Three clear lessons come to my mind, writes Martin Schulz.

Martin Schulz is the President of the European Parliament.

The eleventh-hour agreement on the US debt ceiling reminded me of a typical American action movie where the main character struggles and succeeds at the last second to defuse a ticking bomb. It kept everyone in suspense and it also had a happy-ending of sorts.

But there was nothing really entertaining in this drama about US public finances. The repercussions of a failure to find an agreement would have rattled the markets. The confidence of world investors would have been deeply shaken and it would have seriously impaired the recovery in the world economy. The debate about the debt-ceiling was not just an inner American debate; it was a global one, and the lack of a solution would have affected Europe deeply as our economies are so deeply interconnected.

I recalled this fact just a couple of days ago during a speech on the benefits and perils of the TTIP or Free Trade Agreement at the American Chamber of Commerce in the European Union. This was an excellent opportunity to feel the pulse of the business sector towards this agreement, and also to stress the number of differences and similarities which at times widen and narrow the Atlantic.

I think Europe should ask itself a couple of questions about the shutdown of the federal government and the debate about the debt ceiling. What can or should we learn from the last fortnight in American politics? Three clear lessons come to my mind.

Firstly, something that would be truly banal, if it was not so contested: the vital role that the public sector plays in the smooth running of our economy and the well-being of our citizens. Even if the shutdown affected just the non-critical and non-essential services, it made American citizens and the rest of the world realise how critical many of those non-critical services truly are. The shutdown returned some of the well-deserved pride so constantly battered by the "cut-it-all" preachers.

Secondly, the shutdown was a reminder that even the most solid institutional systems can have difficulties in creating the right incentives for compromise and solutions, when the politics are so heavily polarised. The US has an institutional system which functionality and simplicity would be a dream for many Europeans, yet shutdowns can happen even there. A polarised system can be detrimental to political stability, even when the institutions are strong and deeply rooted.

Thirdly, I cannot help making a comparison between the American Tea Party and our European eurosceptics. Our eurosceptics are a well-diversified lot, but they all share the belief that they are the sole saviours of the nation. Yet, when you look at their solutions to our shared problems of the 21st century, from global warming to terrorism, from international trade to immigration, what they propose falls short of anything that we can veritably call a solution: they either deny that the problem exists or if it exists the best way to get rid of it, is to shoot it down.

As Michael Ignatieff has succinctly put it in the New York Times, our "Tea Parties" do not conceive their political opponents as adversaries, but rather as enemies. And no trust, no dialogue and no compromise is possible between enemies.

This is exactly the opposite of what the European project was supposed to be. The European Union was created to turn old foes into friends, to bridge divisions between rich and poor, small and big states, East and West. It was never supposed to be fuelling divisions.

This is why those who believe in the European project must address the eurosceptic populism with a debate that surpasses the sterile question between being in favour or against Europe: the time has come to ask what kind of Europe we want. And we have to contribute to the response."

This opinion was first published on LinkedIn, which has kindly accepted republication on EURACTIV.