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FRANCE 24 Washington Correspondent

The United States and Europe: debt’s “entente cordiale”

Le 29-11-2011

It was during the leaders’ statements at the White House that Herman Van Rompuy, the head of the European Council, decided to redefine the relationship between Europe and the United States. Standing alongside US President Barack Obama and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Van Rompuy pulled the rather surprising term of “entente cordiale” out of the hat. This from a man considered one of the least quotable politicians around.

Historically, the “Entente Cordiale” stems from 1904. It refers to a series of agreements between Britain and France to settle colonial disputes. The term has since come to define a friendly understanding between political powers.

Nowadays, the transatlantic alliance between Europe and the United States is also bound by debt and deficit, and the fears of contagion.

The European Union is in crisis. The Eurozone is teetering on the brink. And the debt crisis in Europe has its equivalent here in the United States. US debt is spiralling out of control. Political bickering in Congress means the deficit isn’t about to be cut any time soon. Just after the European visitors had left the White House the credit rating agency Fitch lowered its outlook on US debt to negative. It is threatening a downgrade of US debt to add to the one already put in place by Standard and Poor’s.

Despite its own troubles, the US is also fearfully glancing over its shoulder towards the Eurozone. The White House wants Europe to “move with force and decisiveness”, in the words of spokesman Jay Carney. It wants Europe to sort out its problems on its own and quickly. A swift rebuttal from José Manuel Barroso this Monday: “sometimes some decisions take time” he said while looking over at the US president.

Barack Obama says the United States “stands ready to do its part” to end the debt crisis. But which part might that be? There was no precise answer.

There’s good reason for the vague statement. The United States doesn’t have the means to get involved financially. And voters desperate for jobs wouldn’t appreciate such a move one bit. Maybe the US president sees his role simply as the good friend nudging Europe towards the right and, it hopes, the fast decisions. Anything to make those recession fears go away on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s a mutual fear of the other’s financial collapse. These are two economies joined at the hip. And they appear to have decided to act. How exactly? The answers might be available by the time the next summit comes along. This one was largely about showing good intentions.

All participants made their own conclusions in the end. For Barack Obama, this was “not the most dramatic summit” because “we agree on so much.”

For Herman Van Rompuy, this was the “entente cordiale” on display in Washington. A relationship that shares common values, trade agreements, and an enormous debt problem.