'Incomprehension': Europe flummoxed by US government shutdown

European markets reacted calmly to the US government shutdown. In some ways, the Washington shutdown illustrates a crisis of governance that can be detected on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alex Brandon/AP
People take pictures in front of the steps of the closed Lincoln Memorial. Most of the federal government is closed Tuesday in Washington.

European leaders, mired in economic woe, have garnered thinly veiled – and sometimes overt – criticism from across the Atlantic for how they've navigated their domestic crises. Governments have fallen across Europe in recent years. Just today Italy is yet again on the brink, facing its own political collapse.

But it is with “incomprehension” that Europe views the US this week, after a congressional dispute over President Obama's healthcare plan led to a US government shutdown.

So far European markets have reacted calmly to America's political gridlock. And the shutdown has little direct impact on specific transatlantic relations. But it does add to a sense in Europe that the US is bogged down and focused elsewhere, even as discontent over governance is equally discernible on both sides of the Atlantic.

“It fuels an already confused debate when it comes to the future of transatlantic relations,” says Ian Lesser, senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels. “Europe is already worried that the US is pivoting to Asia, and what this would mean for European strategic interests.... [The shutdown] will also reinforce existing European anxieties about a more inward-looking, less activist US.”

The Obama administration has acknowledged the global impact of the shutdown.

“It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said to reporters this week. “It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility to our allies when this kind of thing happens.”

A loss of confidence in the US?

While a long-term shutdown would impact the global economy and thus Europe, it doesn't directly mar transatlantic policies, such as the trade agreement negotiations that are underway.

But it is the expression of a deeper problem of failed checks and balances that will impact American ties with Europe, says Josef Braml, a transatlantic expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “If the superpower has no room to maneuver, it will have to shift burdens to foes and friends,” he says, which will then create a wedge.

"We already see it in security policy,” Dr. Braml says, especially the waning US commitment to NATO and its focus on Asia. “Europe and especially Germans have to think of how they take care of their own security.”

It's not that Europe is a stranger to political crisis. Governments from Greece to Italy to Portugal have fallen since the start of the continent's sovereign debt crisis. And as Europe has been clawing out of its recession, the US has pointed fingers at Brussels and Germany, which powers Europe, for focusing too much on austerity and not enough on growth. As a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney singled out Spain in presidential debates, saying he didn't “want to go down the path to Spain.”

But now Europe is on the other side, looking at the US as a political system it would not want to emulate. The French daily Le Monde on Tuesday ran the headline: “Jefferson, Wake Up. They Have Become Fools!”

"It is incomprehension,” says Arun Kapil, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Paris. And while he says the shutdown is an internal American affair, the tenor of Le Monde sums up the dominant mood.

Italian parallels

And yet, in some corners of Europe, there might be more understanding.

This week, Italy's prime minister, Enrico Letta, faced the collapse of his fragile coalition government after right-wing leader Silvio Berlusconi threatened that ministers from his People of Freedom party (PDL) would resign.

Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, compared Italy to the US ahead of the shutdown in a recent piece: “The neoclassical architecture of Washington, DC is not all that is evoking Rome these days.”

“Regrettably, on the eve of a possible US government shutdown, the political scene in the nation’s capital increasingly looks like the fractured and malfunctioning politics of Italy, especially when it comes to right wing extremism," Mr. Kirkegaard wrote. "Both Rome and Washington are succumbing to a revival of the medieval political strategy of hostage taking.”

US-Europe convergence

The similarities don't end with Rome and DC. The sense of unhappiness over governments' handling of economic policy has risen in both the US and Europe this year, according to the German Marshall Fund's 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey. Sixty-four percent of Americans and 62 percent of Europeans disapprove of their government's policies.

In some ways, the shutdown illustrates a crisis of governance that can be detected on both sides of the Atlantic and the tensions between what publics demand and what societies can afford.

“I think what is notable here is that a decade ago, there was a fairly widespread assumption that the US and Europe were somehow drifting apart in terms of policies and societies,” says Lesser in Brussels. But the shutdown and the ongoing debate about how Europe can get out of crisis has, in some ways, put the two on a path towards each another.

“There is sharper debate in the US over the nature of our social welfare system, healthcare policies, and economic security in general,” he says. “And in Europe [governments] are under pressure of economic stringency.” That means undoing some safety networks that have been in place for decades.

“The end result may be convergence in which the US and Europe end up roughly in the same place.”

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