25 Oct 2011

Star Wars bar economics give US a headache

America invented the term “control freak” and, not surprisingly, the world’s most powerful nation likes to think that it has some control over its own destiny.

In fact the very essence of the American spirit, of the “can do” culture is that you can “do” stuff to alter the outcome of events. You don’t rely on chicken entrails, Zeus or earth rays to sort out life.

The trouble is that Uncle Sam hadn’t really reckoned on the European Union. If Greece sneezes America now catches not just a cold but pneumonia. Who would have thought?

The chinos and blazer wearing homos politicos of Washington used to look upon the European Union as the equivalent of the Star Wars bar: full of extra terrestrials speaking in strange tongues, ordering weird drinks. They belonged to another universe, were completely mystifying but remained ultimately benign. The EU with its 2,000-page constitution and its Babel of languages was dysfunctional. But so what?

Quietly the US felt comfortable with a Europe that was friendly but never coherent enough to be a rival super-state. Now America is sitting in the back of the bus and the driver – the EU – is heading for the cliffs and there is not much anyone can do.

Washington is desperately trying to figure out what exactly is being hatched in Brussels. The only outcome they care about is that the contagion doesn’t spread because, as we have discovered, in this crisis we are all joined at the hip.

The author Michael Lewis has a very enlightening and entertaining take on Europe’s troubles, which vary from nation to nation. But as a friend of mine who used to be a big cheese at the IMF put it recently: “We have all woken up to the fact that the thing standing between the world economy and meltdown is a man called Silvio Berlusconi.”

And that is scary.

The former cruise ship crooner, media tycoon and football impresario has always put on a political “opera buffa” (comic opera).

This is a man who called his first political party “Forza Italia”, or “Go for it Italy” and referred to his cabinet as the First Eleven. A swashbuckling lothario with obviously painted hair and a cake of make-up, he seems to hail from a distant era if not another planet.

Mired in two court cases and debilitated by a never ending litany of scandals his position is critically weak. Non-Italians used to either laugh or wince at Silvio Berlusconi. Italian diplomats cringed as they tried to sell their prime minister to the rest of the world.

Now Silvio is the lynchpin. He needs to push through the kind of austerity measures that would satisfy the ECB, which basically means the Germans.

The world is sitting on the edge of the sofa, hoping, praying that the fractious coalition of the Italian prime minister doesn’t fall apart.

And this in a country that had more governments than Christmases since 1945.

Follow @MattFrei on Twitter.

Tweets by @mattfrei