Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

This new, shining America makes Europe look woeful

I watched through the middle of the night, the early hours of Wednesday, from three until five, and intermittently after that, as the great United States democratic triumph of ordinary voters took place.It was an inspiring experience.

I have experienced nothing quite like it before. It was made up of individuals. Again and again, one was directed to look into the faces of American men and women who had either seen their resolve and dedication turned into victory, or were dismayed at the anticipated disintegration, into defeat, of the Republican Party's counter-challenge to the extraordinary achievement of Barack Obama.

John McCain made an exceptional speech: long, quite detailed, careful and conciliatory, he charted a road for cooperation and harmony in the face of an enormous challenge facing all Americans. It, too, was inspiring.

So the United States faces change. The people have voted for it, and the voting strength and passion were written into the myriad faces that held the television screen momentarily, and then vanished. Excitement, triumph, real tears streaming down the cheeks of men and women, an exuberance that remains unforgettable. I emailed American friends who responded with decisive confirmation of their own excitement and hope. "This was a true melding of diversity," one of them wrote. "My sister and brother-in-law were both in Grant Park. They described being but a raindrop of folks like themselves. Everyone was 'different'. The weight of expectations is almost too huge to be on Barack Obama's shoulders. However, he is smart, compassionate, pragmatic, thoughtful and energetic. He, if anyone, can try to figure things out."

Of course we shall see whether he can and there will be difficulties, defeats and setbacks. But it will not take away from the extraordinary surge of vitality that the powerful expression of the public will, through the ballot box, gave on this occasion.

At one point I turned away in a cloud of regret, that we in Europe cannot do what the people of the United States have done so forcefully this week.

In a massive expression of popular will, Americans swept aside the dismal memories of the past eight years, the darkness of grim experience and the unhappy threat of the corrupting of politics.

We are not able to do this in Europe. We are locked in a mechanism that does not permit us to free ourselves from the past and order up a new opportunity for change. We cannot elect those who govern us. We cannot change. While 137 million Americans, well over half those of voting age, expressed their democratic right to decide on change of a massive kind -- not just in direction but in choosing, for a first time, an Afro-American leader -- Europe has no such right.

We cannot reverse what we have got. Five hundred million European people -- all from democracies which operate with universal suffrage (otherwise they would not be in the EU) -- and which make up a federal structure of 27 countries, cannot do what America has just done. They cannot throw out a sick, disorganised and confused bureaucracy, which they neither like nor understand, and replace it with something they have chosen and which they -- who should be sovereign -- believe to be better.

We are in the second half of the seriously defective presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, who has attempted to move mountains and has ended up looking increasingly ridiculous. The six-month presidency -- unless answerable to an elected administration for Europe -- is and has always been a laughable arrangement. So too has been the oligarchy headed by the commission president, which for years, if not decades -- no matter who was in the presidential seat -- has pursued policies and objectives with scant regard for any democratic will.

The contrast was profoundly emphasised by the unilateral expressions and responses to Obama's election. It is no surprise to me that so many Americans look at Europe with at best a quizzical expression on their faces. What kind of daft government, and even dafter Constitutional document, do we think we are running under?

Constantly, during those happy and inspiring night hours, before the light of Wednesday dawned and watching the tide of achievement, of fulfilment, even of rapture, the comparison with our own set of circumstances was brought home to me.

Where, in Europe, is the comparable will of the people? Where, on this side of the Atlantic, is there the kind of unity we saw gathering behind the new leader of the United States? What is wrong with us? How can we change it?

Europe failed its member states in the economic collapse and in the banking crisis. There was no central leadership or direction. And what happened was far from being the first exercise in floundering and uncertainty. We have had it over Georgia and over NATO, over Kosovo and Turkey. We are cutting corners on enlargement. We are pretending about the democratic will of Europe's people, which is certainly not being expressed by the still-handicapped European Parliament.

I look on Barack Obama with confidence and on his mandate with great admiration. The voters whose smiling, laughing, crying faces filled the screen, hour after hour, with delight and the will for him to succeed, lifted the heart. What lifted the heart also, and was contained in McCain's fine speech, was the idea of American unity of purpose.

That too fell by the wayside when it was applied to Europe. We are divided, uncertain, angry with our rulers, and we have no way out or back. We are locked up in a nonsense called the EU and subject to an even greater nonsense called the Lisbon Treaty.

It was sad to have these recollections forcefully emphasised by the triumphant rise to power, in the United States, of a determined and democratic voice for change.