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Thank goodness for EU leadership

Posted: December 18, 2011 - 1:18am

Almost 40 years ago, I and seven fellow students studying in Europe, found ourselves stranded for the Christmas holidays. It was our first Christmas away from home and our plans to stay together in a youth hostel in northern Germany fell apart. The few of us who found each other were struggling to find a hotel room with enough cash (pre-ATM days) left over for some bread and cheese on Christmas day. Then, like an angels from above, two of our hitchhiking colleagues found us meandering around a cold, closed-up market place. They came to bring us all to Elsfeth, a nearby fishing village, to share Christmas with a family they met along the road. Soon we were eight students joyously heading toward a promising Christmas experience.

The images of this professor and his wife opening their house to us, the candlelit Christmas tree, and the midnight service singing “Silent Night” have stayed with me all these years. Since then, I have always paid attention to European affairs; knowing in my heart that what happens there matters greatly. This year the developments in the European Union have been particularly critical for all of us.

At the top of the list for those worried about economic affairs is the latest deal to save the euro and cope with Europe’s burgeoning debt crisis. While our Congress can’t even get its appointed “super committee” to advance a debt reduction proposal, the European Union (EU) manages to pull together 26 of 27 EU countries (many of which were at war not too long ago) to sign up for tighter deficit limits and sanctions on offenders. According to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, a solution would have been “unthinkable” a few months ago. The European Union’s delegate to the U.S., Francois Rivasseau, notes “It is a historic day for Europe, indeed, because we have made a great step towards more integration as the proper way of answering the (debt) crisis we face.”

In today’s global economy, where even someone like me has retirement tied up in European funds, this is exceedingly good news. Although the markets are still trying to figure out what all the implications are to the euro deal, they started off with a positive response. Meanwhile, we can’t get 12 members of Congress to put national interest above partisan politics in order to advance a starting point on reducing our $15-trillion-plus debt.

Like it or not, the global economy over the next century is also closely tied to how we address climate change and transition to a low carbon economy. In this regard, the latest United Nations climate deal tops the list of European accomplishments. The European Union had come to the talks in Durban, South Africa, calling for a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding treaty on global warming by 2015, covering all major emitters. While the final deal was weaker than the EU was pushing for, they managed to conclude a global, overarching legal agreement to cut emissions . . . eventually.

Alden Meyer, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, explains “The good news is we avoided a train wreck. The bad news is that we did very little to affect the (current) emissions curve.” So while plenty of work remains to stave off the worst of climate and time is running out, British climate secretary Chris Huhne called the climate deal “a great success for European diplomacy,” and chief U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern said it has “all the elements we were looking for.” Against the backdrop of a U.S. Congress stifled by the oil lobbyists, unable to engage in this most pressing of issues, the accomplishments of the European Union loom large and immensely significant. They are charting the path to a low carbon economy while we, the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, push poor countries to adopt reforms that we have yet to adopt ourselves.

This is enough to make my head hurt. However, with the holidays here I would rather not dwell on the ineptitude of our Congress and instead be grateful for the ability of the European Union to engage constructively in addressing the really big problems facing society. Without Europe filling our leadership void, the world would be in a lot more hurt this Christmas. The global economy would be shakier and there would be little hope that mankind can rise to the challenge of climate change. This year when I sing

“Silent night, Holy night

All is calm, all is bright”

I will again be thinking fondly of Germany and Europe.

• Troll resides in Douglas.

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