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Lack of leadership is how many have characterised the European Union over the past years. Europeans reacted too slowly to the Euro crisis, it is argued, and kicked the can down the road as their divisions prevented them from defining a sound economic policy. But the current polarization in Washington and the vitriolic rhetoric against political opponents beats what I have witnessed in Brussels.

The episode over a possible government shutdown next Tuesday by the House Republicans, and a Treasury alarm note over a mid-October default continue an American saga that started two years ago. In 2011 a first round of haggling over the debt ceiling occurred, with Standard and Poor decreasing by a notch its US credit rating. To end the saga, political leadership in today’s Washington requires not so much finding common ground, but fleshing out a deal between opposing views. For that to happen, Democrats will need to be generous to Republicans who look for the courage to resist the wacko bird faction in their own party (John McCain’s words last March). And leaders will need to work on their relationships. For weeks President Obama and House leader Boehner have not talked about the budget.

On both sides of the Atlantic, debates on government spending are dominated by the annual deficit and accumulated debt. The question of the priorities on which governments should spend their money deserves more attention than it gets today, but the emotional debates on the right size of the government obfuscate the analysis on how effective and fair specific spending categories are. Politics should come back to its basics of “who gets what, when and how”, which could lead more easily to compromises than the divisive question of the size of government.

Leaders in the US and the EU must work within systems that were designed to complicate decision-making out of fear that one particular interest or group of countries would dominate the others. But on top of this complicated governance, Washington has to cope with a divided Republican party, as illustrated by House leader John Boehner asking journalists for ideas on how to control his caucus.

In the Euro zone political parties from left and right have shown a relatively high degree of unity so far, which is remarkable in the countries that struggle economically. In Germany, last Sunday’s election did not result in a fragmented parliament, though one could have expected exactly that after the domestic polemics over Germany’s role in the Euro crisis. So could it be that one country like the US is politically more divided over fiscal policy than the bloc of 17 euro zone countries?

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