Sunday

24th Jan 2021

Opinion

EU's man in Washington should be a politician not a bureaucrat

Everybody is aware, in the European Union as well as in the USA, that Transatlantic relations are facing challenges not seen since 1945.

The invasion of Iraq created a profound and widening gap between European public opinions (even where governments decided to support Washington) and current US policy.

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To be accurate, it played a catalyst role by accelerating a divorce between European citizens and Washington's policy which started years before over clashes about Kyoto, the International Penal Court, Guantanamo, etc. In any case, we now definitely have a 'situation' between the EU and the USA.

Unique opportunities

In the past months, I have had two very unique opportunities to assess the scale of the problem and to listen to converging proposals to avoid a further lurch in the wrong direction.

First, in January 2004, in The Hague, I had the great opportunity to moderate the first ever top-level brainstorming seminar gathering EU 25 member diplomats about future EU/US relations. Then, 10 days ago, I had the privilege to preside and actively take part to the second Transatlantic Week organized by TIESWeb in Miami.

In both cases, a clear message came out: Europeans are not doing enough to communicate in the US what the European Union is becoming and they are not doing it effectively.

A major historical project

Most US citizens (and a significant part of the US elites including EU specialists) tend to see the EU as a mere bureaucratic machine, managed from Brussels and only concerned by trade regulations.

They widely ignore that the EU is now embarking in a major historical project to generate and manage a continental-wide democracy, gathering almost 500 million citizens from about 30 different nationalities, languages and cultures: a project which puts the EU at the forefront of the new frontier for democracy in terms of size, diversity and complexity.

Meanwhile, US citizens (and a very significant part of their elites) do not understand that the EU institutions are increasingly becoming only a part of the whole European decision process - companies, NGOs, universities and media are increasingly affecting what the EU is, and will be.

Politician or eurocrat?

At the GlobalEurope seminar of future EU/US relations in The Hague as well as in Miami with community leaders from across the EU and the USA, a clear diagnosis was made: this situation is first of all due to the inability of Europeans to explain the rapid changes which took place within the EU over the past 5 - 10 years.

And among many other elements discussed on these two occasions, another point was raised - the fact that in the USA the European Union should have a politician rather than another eurocrat to be its voice and face in media, talk-shows and conferences.

Not only will a European politician as EU ambassador to Washington show US officials, media and experts that the EU is not only a bureaucratic machine; but the individual will also be able to reach larger segments of the US population to convey European opinions, analyses and visions. The latter element will be crucial in the coming years if we really want to avoid the two public opinions drifting away from one another.

Two candidates

Of course a more pro-active policy of the European Union as such to reach out to US public opinion is required, but there again, their efficiency will depend on the ability of the EU Ambassador to Washington to reach out to civil society and be an attractive interlocutor for European civil society groups willing to engage in dialog with their US counterparts as well.

As was mentioned in EUobserver a few months ago, reflecting articles from Irish media, it seems that we have a very unique opportunity to grasp in the coming months.

A new EU Ambassador to the USA has to be appointed as the current one is reaching retirement time. Two Irish candidates look like they may well be interested in the job. Very good indeed, because, in order to reach out to US audiences, we need English speaking natives! And the strength of Europe is to have natives of so many languages.

It is also very interesting because their profiles illustrate two totally opposite sorts of men and would embody two totally different types of an EU face in the USA.

The first 'candidate' (though there is never any official candidacy for the position) is John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister - a very respected and talented politician, who recently took an active part in shaping up the future EU Constitution. He was a member of the Presidium of the Convention which prepared the Constitution and also played a key role in the development of the euro when he was acting president of the EU in 1996.

The other one is David O'Sullivan, current Secretary General of the European Commission, a career eurocrat (25 years within the European Commission), totally unknown to Europeans and who has been the top European Commission bureaucrat since 2000 (online CV not found on Europa, the EU official's website).

EU-US relations

Take a guess on which one, out of the two, can better reach out to US audiences, give a vivid, attractive image of the EU in the USA and show that bureaucrats no longer represent everything within the EU political system?

But of course, the decision process of appointing a diplomat to Washington is (as everything else within the EU administration) a very obscure process. Even if some Washington bureaucrats may prefer a 'friendly' bureaucrat, I am certain that US citizens would much rather have a human political European face.

Due to the very serious crises affecting Transatlantic relations and for the sake of future relations between Americans and Europeans, let's hope that the EU will invest in the human factor.

Eurocrats will in any case be N° 2, 3, 4 …. in the embassy!

Franck Biancheri - is Director of Studies and Strategy at the foundation Europe 2020 and President of the transatlantic organisation TIESweb

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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