Editor's Note: What I Did On My Winter Vacation
Dec 17, 2004, 23:30 (7 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
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By Brian Proffitt
It is, I fear, a typically American mindset that gets me to wait
until the second week of December to start using up my allotted
vacation. Taking time off it seems, is not something citizens in my
country do very well.
This was just one of the lessons I learned reading The
United States of Europe while on vacation last week. Written
by T.R. Reid, this book examines the growth of the European Union
as a very strong political and economic force in the world. In
essence, the book proclaims, the EU is becoming (or has already
become) a new superpower in the world--one that should neatly
topple the unipower vision of the world currently held by many in
the US government.
Reading this book was a pleasure, and it got me to thinking
about how it is that Europe (and many other nations in the world)
seem to "get it" about Linux and my government seems to lag way
behind. I will be honest with you; up until reading
Europe, I thought that it was basically a case of
anti-Americanism at work. Windows equaled Microsoft equaled
corporate America equaled evil. That sort of thing.
But in Europe, which compares and contrasts the US view
of the world versus the EU view, I learned that it is not quite so
From the book, I get the sense of a cooperative spirit and
thoughtfulness that allows European leaders to examine Linux with
at least an objective eye. Even if Microsoft were made in Bonn or
Nice, I get the sense that in Europe they are going to hold all
software up to the same standard: will it be the best solution?
Not, will it keep jobs in my city/state/country?
Interestingly, Linux is mentioned at one point in the book, when
Reid lists the many examples of technological advances that come
from Europe. This would tend to lend credence to the whole anti-US
idea, but the book goes on to describe the EU as a place where
individual nation-states have learned that capitalism at any cost
is just not necessary anymore--a lesson the US has not learned yet.
Cooperation seems to be the key, and it seems to be a key that has
unlocked the door to massive economic power.
In one case, the book describes in some detail, the travails of
General Electric's attempted merger with Honeywell. This merger
flew through the US Securities and Exchange Commission as an
okey-dokey proposition, and everyone though this was pretty much a
done deal. But then the EU stepped in.
According to Mario Monti, the European competition commissioner,
these two companies merging was not a good idea.
"Such integration, unless corrected, could have resulted in the
foreclosure of the market for competitors," Monti said in a
And with the EU's decision, the merger was kaput, just like
that. US business leaders went ballistic. After all, these were two
US companies, doing a merger in the US. What the heck did the EU
care about a merger that was already approved by the SEC? What
right did they have to block it? Many pundits and colleagues
suggested that then-GE CEO Jack Welsh ignore the EU's decision and
go ahead with the merger anyway.
Welsh, however, knew what was what. Doing the merger anyway
would have been disastrous, because a merged GE-Honeywell would
have been locked out of the EU market. A market that by anyone's
measure is one of the largest single markets on the planet today.
Without EU customers, a new GE-Honeywell shrivel and die on the
vine. That, Welsh knew, gave the EU the right and the
might to nix the merger.
This book is full of such examples of how the EU and the US
diverge in many areas. So, when I read all of the hullabaloo about
the proposed EU patent directive, I have to wonder how long this
turkey is going to fly.
Opponents of the new patent laws have outright accused large
corporations, especially Microsoft, of heavy lobbying to get these
laws passed. Laws which many believe will give the EU a very
US-looking patent system, especially for software. Personally, I
don't doubt it for a minute. And, interestingly enough, it looks as
if the pressure is being applied on individual nations rather than
on the EU as a whole. This has allowed a key few to push
legislation through that a majority of the EU does not want.
If I really wanted to try out the tin-foil hat, I would wonder
aloud that it is indeed most curious that the loudest proponents of
the patent directives, such as the UK and the Netherlands, are
getting lots o' new MS desktops deals of late. If I wanted to try
such a hat on, of course.
As a unified force, it is very clear that the EU is an entity to
be reckoned with. I am personally hoping it shakes off all this
divide-and-conquer lobbying and remembers that it has the political
and commerical power to tell all these large corporations to take a
flying leap. After all, it's happened before--faced with massive
sanctions, Microsoft has already altered its desktop offerings to
comply with EU will. Maybe not much, but a darn sight more than
what the US could do.
It could be that proponents of the EU patent law are right when
they say their new patent system won't go the way of the US'. I
hope so, but I doubt it. If the EU can negate this proposal, not
only will it put their citizens in a better position, but it could
also lay the groundwork for eventual EU pressure on the US to get
its patent system in order.
Sounds far-fetched? Try this on for size: In October of this
year, the US repealed of the Extraterritorial Income (ETI) Credit.
This was a tax break given to US companies who exported goods. Lots
of nations protested this policy for years and the US basically
ignored the concerns. Then the EU went to the World Trade
Organization and filed an official complaint. The WTO ruled the ETI
an illegal export subsidy.
When the US began stalling, the EU backed the ruling up with
levied retaliatory trade sanctions on over 1,600 US products
(incidentally aimed at products coming from states that were very
important in the US presidential campaign).
Forced with trying to explain to their constituents the very
real and very painful application of a sanction tariff that will
reach the 14% mark by the end of 2004, House and Senate members
very quickly pushed through a bill to repeal the ETI. The sanctions
are scheduled to be lifted on January 1, 2005.
In essence, the EU had directly influenced US tax and export
As a US citizen, it would not seem logical to applaude such
tactics, but I'll do it anyway. I think everyone, whether one
person or a massive nation-state, needs to have a friend who is not
afraid to tell them when they are being an idiot. Such friendships
are few and far between, but I know that when I have had such
friends, I cherish them greatly. Sure, it's uncomfortable to hear
criticism, and perhaps get slapped upside the head every once in a
while. But getting good advice is always worth it, if you care to
The US and the EU can be such friends: quarreling at times,
cooperating at others. I am looking forward to the day when the
EU's (and South America and Asia and Africa and so on) progressive
embraces of open source technologies will be a lesson that the US
will be more receptive to learn.