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Yes EU can: Why Americans should understand the European Union

Monday, October 19, 2009 | 11:28 a.m. CDT; updated 1:11 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 25, 2009

The European Union might at first glance seem less relevant to the average American than, say, the Chrysler dealership down the street. But it’s prime time for Yankees to take notice of that political institution — and not just because the first EU-U.S. summit under the new administration is set for Nov. 3.

The awkward, antagonistic days of you’re-with-us-or-against-us are, for the most part, over, and Americans are in the midst of the “Obama Bounce.” The 2009 Transatlantic Trends study conducted by the German Marshall Fund found that European attitudes toward us have improved significantly. Our country hasn’t rebounded in popularity like it is now since European countries started getting together (in an effort to keep the post-World War II peace) in 1957.

A startling case in point: Although only 12 percent of Germans gave Bush the nod in 2008, 92 percent are throwing Obama the thumbs up in 2009. And this is many months after joyous headlines celebrating the election splashed across European papers. “Notre Rêve Américain” read Page 1 of Belgian newspaper Le Soir: Obama is “our American dream.” The time is ripe, as the study says, “for a revitalization of U.S.-European ties.”

October 2009 is also a particularly thrilling time to be an American watching the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon, the latest in a great series of agreements that has changed the face of that union, has been approved by 26 of the 27 member countries and awaits only the approval of the Czech Republic: Their president holds the agreement hostage on his desk while the future of the EU hangs unfulfilled, and tensions are titillatingly high. 

Drama aside, the current evolution of the EU mirrors that of our country, which means we’ve got a chance to review our own historical battles through theirs. Assuming the treaty does pass, the supranational government will have more power than ever before over the member nations, and European citizens are fighting about that shift just as Americans did in the late 18th century. Throw James Madison in some lederhosen, give Patrick Henry a beret, and you’ve basically got yourself the same show.

Some of the 498 million citizens in the EU are like our Federalists, believing that by pooling their sovereignty, they can better achieve common aims, while other Anti-Federalist types — called Euro-skeptics — rail against the loss of control they feel as power collects in Brussels, the Belgian city that is their Washington, D.C.

This is not to say that the EU is a United States of Europe (though Europeans once toyed with adopting that name). European law does, crucially, take precedence over national law, but there is no single standing European army. The EU does not control education standards or collect income tax. And the EU lacks unifying media personalities and that common identity reinforced by them. There is no Larry King, and how could there be? The EU has 23 official languages and many more cultural differences in its melting pot.

One thing they do share, however, is a strong single market, and it might be the most compelling practical reason for Americans to know what’s going on in the EU.

Amid all the talk of China taking over the world, it’s worth remembering that the transatlantic market outweighs that Asian behemoth. The latest cover of Fortune, for example, touts the story of how “China Buys the World” with their $2.1 trillion in foreign-exchange wealth. (Online the story has the headline "It's China's world (we just live in it.") But Germany alone rivals China as the world’s greatest goods exporter, the U.S. remains the largest exporter of capital, and the U.S.-EU market generates $3.75 trillion in annual commercial sales. There is power in Western numbers, especially when you put them together.

The EU and U.S. also do more than Americans might imagine to support each other’s economies. The Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University estimates that 14 million jobs are generated transatlantic-style, meaning that either Europeans are working on their continent for American companies or vice versa.

And their research reveals that between 2000 and 2008, the US invested $26.4 billion in China — which is less than half the amount the U.S. invested in Belgium or Ireland alone. Meanwhile, the EU invested more in California than in the entirety of East Asia. It’s hard to overstate how much we depend on each other’s health.

In many cases, the EU and U.S. can achieve more by teaming up. As of now, Europe has much stronger climate change legislation (though that’s not to say the U.S. hasn’t done work outside the cumbersome chambers), and the rest of the world will be more compelled to follow after the U.S. does the same, fingers crossed, or at least professes to at the upcoming global climate change conference in Copenhagen.

By sharing regulations with the EU, the U.S. can save money, too. You might, for example, feel sleepy when I tell you that the two unions have made great strides in sharing accounting standards, but you might wake up when you hear that those shared regulations represent hundreds of millions of dollars in American savings — just because firms don’t have to fill papers out for filing both at home and abroad.   

But if all that still doesn’t have you convinced that the EU is worth paying attention to, we can return home to the Chrysler dealership: Since June of this year, that business has been partly owned by Fiat, a most Italian company.  

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist for the Missourian and an editor for Vox Magazine. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has been published by a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Businessweek.com. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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