Beyond the slide in EU

There was a moment in the late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton found himself at a meeting with European leaders facing two men from Luxembourg – population 420,000, give or take a few. One happened to be just taking a turn at the European Union presidency, which at the time rotated among all member states, no matter how small.

By Stephen Castle (Geopolitics)

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Published: Mon 23 Apr 2012, 9:45 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:29 PM

“We now have two Luxembourgers here instead of one,” Clinton noted dryly, “which gives them, I think, the highest percentage of world leadership compared to the population of any country in the world by a good, long way.”

Clinton’s encounter with Jacques Santer, the president of the bloc’s executive, the European Commission, and Jean-Claude Juncker, who is still the country’s prime minister, captured some of the absurdities of the American relationship with the then-nascent project to integrate Europe.

Today, when that ambition seems jeopardised weekly by mounting public debts, political finger-pointing and a bond market squeeze – known collectively as the euro crisis – it is easy to forget the distance traveled by Europeans together and the ways in which the EU’s once tentative relations with Washington have evolved as well.

Much has changed since Clinton’s wry observation. In the late 1990s the EU was a collection of 15 nations, and just about as many currencies. The star-shaped Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission, was shrouded in plastic sheeting. Renovations had forced officials to take refuge in one of the many nondescript buildings of a city synonymous with deadening bureaucracy. The highest profile American presence was its mission to NATO, several kilometers outside of town.

Today, the EU has 27 members, including many former Communist countries, creating the world’s largest bloc of trading nations with a population of some half a billion. Its single currency is used by 17 nations. Despite – or because of – the dire problems caused by the debt crisis, member states are vesting more power than ever at the EU level.

The EU no longer rotates its presidency among national governments, for big policy decisions at least. The European Council, where the national governments meet, now has a permanent president, Herman Van Rompuy, a former Prime Minister of Belgium, and a more powerful foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

Though not without critics, the change has meant that foreign leaders meet the same EU interlocutors – at least for stretches of two-and-a-half years – allowing them and their officials to forge closer ties.

Not least, the United States, once wary of the diffuse nature of power in the EU and its cumbersome bureaucracy – a caution evidenced by the quip ascribed to Henry Kissinger, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” – is embracing the logic of Brussels as never before.

The United States mission to the EU here has grown every year recently. Today it has 108 diplomats, one-fifth larger than six years ago. Eleven United States government departments are represented, covering areas like law enforcement, plant and animal inspection, oceans and atmosphere, immigration and customs.

“We are bursting at the seams here,” said William Kennard, the American ambassador to the EU. “A number of agencies that have sent people here for the first time tell me that it is a very efficient use of resources. It’s a regional hub for Europe.”

This expansion can be witnessed in the EU district of Brussels, a nearly perpetual construction zone. The Berlaymont re-opened in 2004 after a state-of-the-art refit that cost 670 million euros, or about $890 million. A new headquarters is now being built for the president of the European Council, created by the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in December 2009. With its womb-like appearance in architectural plans, the 300-million-euro building has been nicknamed the “E-uterus.”

Down the road at Schuman Roundabout, another building is being filled, this time by the EU’s new diplomatic corps. The complex, complete with a coffee shop and supermarket, is destined to be the EU’s equivalent of the State Department.

Some, like the American ambassador, Kennard, believe that recent economic crises have even been good for trans-Atlantic ties, forcing the recognition of interdependence.

“Ironically the financial crisis has brought us closer together,” said Kennard, who argues that a time of limited resources makes the logic of closer cooperation more compelling.

Peter Chase, a former American diplomat who now represents the US Chamber of Commerce in Brussels, agreed. “The euro crisis has got people’s attention because what happens in the European economy has a major impact in the US,” he said. “You cannot not deal with the EU – that was true four years ago but it’s even more true now.”

The other factor pushing the two sides together is the rise of China. It may, he believes, even add momentum to a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. Even if such an accord remains far off, Chase says he believes there is now a good chance the two sides will announce plans to open negotiations sooner.

“Europeans are even more concerned about the rise of China than Americans,” Chase said. “There is a sense that before, it would not have been appropriate for the US and the EU to do things together. That’s not the case now.”

Yet Washington’s more positive stance toward the EU is tempered by the knowledge that the debt crisis has sapped Europe’s economic strength – and its commitment to defence spending – while eroding public support for the idea of European integration.

Decision-making here still proceeds at a glacial pace, a fact that sometimes frustrates American officials. Kennard says that the emergence of new global powers will test the EU system. “The rest of the world is not going to wait for decisions to be made,” he said.

In fact, relations have evolved to the point that the United States has seemed sometimes to want the EU to work more than Europeans do.

“There is a cruel irony to the story,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In that Washington has finally come to the realisation that it is in America’s interests to have as strong a Europe as possible – and the partner that the US now hopes for is not the partner it has.”

Stephen Castle is a commentator on European affairs


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