This afternoon I had an extended lunch in Brussels with José Manuel Durão Barroso, chairman of the European Commission. We were barely seated and he already started complaining: “Why can’t I have a government shutdown like Obama ?”
I had suggested a simple menu since I didn’t want him distracted by the finer peaks of gastronomy that he is accustomed to. The simplicity appealed to him and he ate and complained with gusto.
His jealousy of Obama was right there at the entrée of a simple Caesar salad, came to full blossom over the tournedos, and didn’t subside at the dame blanche. Like our dishes, Manny (for friends) went from green to red and ended up both steaming black on the outside while icy white at his core.
By “Obama” he meant the USA and by “I” he meant Europe.
Manny didn’t use the “we”, which is significant since Manny is only a chairman who changed his title into “president”, and he has to share his power with the EU Council president Herman van Rompuy who was a “president” right from the start. These two EU presidents treat each other as figureheads while Eurozone president Jeroen Dijsselbloem is the odd man out and only a trainee for figurehead.
“America is a real democracy,” Manny argued. “When there is no money the government simply shuts down. Tit for tat. This is as it should be ! The voters learn that they better pay more taxes. Even a child can understand it. When a child can understand it, you get a grown-up democracy.”
“So why don’t you shut down Europe ?” I asked.
“I have the deficit. It is a horrible thing, you know. You cannot do anything since there is always the deficit. If you lower taxes then the deficit grows big and angry. If you raise taxes then you hurt its self-respect and it becomes even angrier. If one country has something expensive then another country wants something expensive too, and to keep peace everyone agrees that the deficit will take care of it, and then I have to go out and tell the deficit, which makes it angry again. I hate the deficit. I would like to get rid of it but I can’t find a way to do so. It is like Switzerland, stuck right in the middle of the EU but no part of it, like a big hole in the eye.”
“Besides,” Manny continued, “who would notice a shutdown of Europe ?”
“If I would send the EU bureaucrats on unpaid leave, establishments in Brussels like our restaurant would notice but that’s about it.”
“Last September I had my State of the Union, with a campaign for greater unity in Europe, and nobody noticed. Surely people will not notice a Government Shutdown either. If I open or close my mouth it has no effect, except when I am eating.”
“The EU hasn’t had an Emergency Top Crisis Meeting for a whole year now. Europe doesn’t seem to exist,” I agreed.
“We have been dead since August 2012, ever since Mario Monti of the European Central Bank said that he would print as much money as the deficit requires,” Manny growled, cutting and cutting his tournedos in ever smaller pieces.
Manny wasn’t a person for accuracy. “You mean Mario Draghi,” I said, before I could stop myself.
“Whatever Mario,” he reacted. “Though I now understand why that Monti guy was surprised when I gave him the cold shoulder lately. Politicians should have different names. Italians can do it with their pizzas so why not in politics ?”
“I hate to mention it,” I continued, “but Obama has a deficit too.”
“But he doesn’t have a Mario,” Manny retorted, lavishly pouring hot chocolate. “His deficit gets a real punch in the face right now, with his government shutdown. There is no Mario to undercut him. All national museums and wildparks are closed. No more “thank you for your mail” letters from the White House. No more tax officials checking your tax statement. Americans are bleeding.”
“I instead do not only have a deficit but also a Mario who is married to it. Europe suffers from a weak democracy in which there will always be a tax official who checks our statement.”
“I can only hope that Angela Merkel makes a coalition soon so that she can start a whole new series of Emergency Top Crisis Meetings again. The Greeks are sending desperate emails that they are strictly obeying the agreements and aren’t hiding their deficit, which is flagging to me that they want to be caught red-handed guilty again. I am pretty sure that my Mario has no good answer for the Greeks, that will take that smug smile from his face.”
At the end of our lunch, Manny was still frustrated on his campaign on unity in Europe and still glaringly jealous of Obama with his United States but I shared his expectation of good times ahead. “I just discovered a good restaurant in Waterloo. Shall we go there next time ?”