Europe Is Not Impressed by Washington's Debt Dance

The refrain from European papers: screw this up and the whole world suffers

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Ever wonder what our nation looks like to folks from afar? Here we look at how a uniquely American story--the kind of news we have trouble explaining even to ourselves--is being told overseas. Want to see a particular topic covered here? Let us know.

European journalists would like American politicians to stop screwing around, please. "The clock ticks unrelentingly," writes Christoph von Marschall for Die Zeit. "If Congress doesn't act, the USA in three weeks will not be able to pay its bills. ... The stock market would react with shock. The whole world would feel the consequences. Until now, the largest national economy on earth has never had to justify/explain its solvency." Still, he continues, "an agreement isn't yet in sight. What on Friday is promised is no longer valid on Sunday." Though he explains both sides' positions to his German readers, he certainly doesn't seem all that sympathetic to those prolonging the process:

That's the appalling thing about the 2011 summer theatre in the U.S. You can't take for granted that politicians will do what ought to be taken for granted. Do they not see what calamity they summon? From afar it looks reckless. Republicans and Democrats hew to ideological extremes and thus risk plunging an entire half of the world into a new financial crisis.

That's a refrain you see over and over in the European papers, adding to the sense of frustration: if the U.S. screws this up, the whole world may suffer. The Italian paper La Repubblica, for instance, includes in its debt ceiling coverage a quote from new IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who says, as the paper summarizes, that a "failure to agree on increasing the debt ceiling and a default of the United States would be a 'shock' and would threaten global economic stability."

So whom do the Europeans blame for the delays? Die Zeit's Christoph von Marschall, above, does not choose sides. Others aren't so evenhanded. For Die Welt's Uwe Schmitt, for example, the problem is clear: the Republican party, and particularly its Tea Party contingent. Just take a look at this stuff, which reads like something out of The Nation:

From "national shame" to "blackmail on the schoolyard level" to Kabuki run the abusive terms with which America's media describe the months-prolonged poker over raising the debt ceiling. ... While the great Japanese theatre tradition of Kabuki hasn't earned the insulting comparison, blackmail is much closer to describing the intractable matter ... The Republicans are refusing on political-ideological grounds the smallest tax increases, without which ... nothing will work ... It means nothing to this debate that even Ronald Reagan, honored in the party as a saint, and George Bush senior raise taxes, when it was necessary. It doesn't mean anything either that Republicans, when they were in the majority, a dozen times raised the debt ceiling and that that the current tax rate in the U.S. is, compared to international levels, at the lowest rate. ... You know something is up when the British "Economist" magazine, dependably against a strong welfare state and for market independence, attests to Republican "economic illiteracy and shameful cynicism."

Of course, if you're an American reader, you can look at this at least two ways. The first way goes like this: on debt ceiling negotiations, Obama is right--for evidence, see how European observers side with him. The second: Obama is such a European socialist--no wonder the Europeans like him. In any event, Schmitt isn't the only Continental seething over Republican intransigence, here. A hint of scolding can also be found in Pierre Larrouturou's piece for the French and left-leaning Libération. In a broader musing on debt issues worldwide entitled "After Greece, the United States?" Larrouturou appears to be linking the entirety of American debt problems to Ronald Reagan:

... In 1981, Ronald Reagan arrived at the White House. He lowered taxes for the richest, which increased the public debt. ... In the context of elevated production, deregulation politics led to great precariousness. It was with this that millions of Americans began to go into debt to maintain their living standard.

Whether or not a given piece leans left or right, however, the overall message from the European press is pretty clear: Europe is watching, and it's not impressed. To close, some words from von Marschall:

Looking closer, of course, both sides have good reasons for their tough stances. ... The U.S. must save--not a little, but really a lot. There the Republicans are right. One third of current expenditure is now financed from new loans. The total debt has reached 14.3 trillion dollars--100% of the gross domestic product. The main reason: tax revenue dropped with the financial crisis. ... America will take years to get out of the crisis. Therefore, in addition to cuts higher revenues are needed to balance the budget-- ... [including] higher tax rates for the rich. There, the Democrats are right. Most likely, Republicans and Democrats will agree in the end. But this is not certain. There remains a risk that ideology will triumph over responsibility.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.