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The EU can’t have its cake and eat it when it comes to relations with the USA


How are you supposed to measure the state of US-EU relations? No easy task seen from Brussels.

Earlier this week Barack Obama prompted a bout of soul-searching by stating that he would not attend a EU-US summit pencilled in for May this year. At least it resolves who will first shake his hand or sit next to him – no-one.

Then today comes the news that Hillary Clinton called Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, regarding SWIFT. Buzek even tweeted that he had spoken to Clinton, but the tweet has subsequently been deleted – screenshot of my retweet of it here. The Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs nevertheless voted against an agreement today.

So what’s the reaction? How dare the USA try to influence the EU’s legislative process by applying pressure on the European Parliament! Normally accurate, blogger Julien Frisch is completely wrong on this one. What is to stop Hillary Clinton (or anyone else) trying to influence the European Parliament – providing we know about it?

Conversely the President of the European Commission and the High Rep for Foreign Policy of the EU should be doing the same towards Washington – proactively promoting the EU’s interests. That’s what having a stronger role in the world is about – and how often do we hear that advocated by the EU’s high level politicians? Plus if the EU had been a bit more forceful towards the USA from the start we would not have found ourselves in the messy predicament concerning SWIFT anyway where it looks like a one way street towards giving the USA data.

So on balance US-EU governmental relations don’t look too bad this week. Obama has rejected attendance at a bla-bla talking shop, and Clinton has realised that the European Parliament (and the legislation it passes) actually counts.

[UPDATE 5.2.10]
Daniel Bastiero, the Spanish journalist who managed to get the tweet out of Buzek has more on his blog about the story (Spanish original, Google translation here)

Cake adapted from this photo by chotda “tropical tricolour cake, sliced” March 20, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

19 Comments

  • Julien Frisch |

    Jon, first of all your statement that I am “completely wrong” on this one is not really based on argumentation. But let’s ignore that:

    Yes, Clinton can do that, she can call the European Parliament’s president at night to pressure on him. Yes, she can send the US ambassador to go to MEPs and to threaten them. But this remains both undue and an imprudence. The European Parliament has to represent the will of European citizens, and not the will of any foreign country.

    Clinton may voice any objection she has to whatever EU institutions are doing. She should do that publicly, telling her side of the story and then our representatives will either agree on her arguments or not.

    You say, it’s okay if she is doing this, “providing we know about it”. But what do we know about it? We know that it happened. We don’t know which kind of false arguments she provided in secret to our Parliament president! We don’t know what kind of threats or promises she made to Buzek! That is not much and that is secret diplomacy trying to undermine the role of the Parliament vis-à-vis us citizens – that is monopolising the voice of a foreign country over the voices of European citizens.

    As I have already written on Twitter: If she had the guts, she would stand up openly and telling that all she wants is that European citizens give American agencies free access to their banking data without the need to respect privacy or protect data as the rapporteur has noted in her report.

    And all this without reciprocity – that is without US citizens having to do the same, which shows that Americans would not give away their data as they expect us to give away ours.

    So yes, she can do that, but she shouldn’t. I don’t want this kind of selfish, interest-based, back-room/telephone call interference. This is all I wanted to express in the most clear way with my. And this is an opinion to which I stand.

  • Jon |

    But look, the very fact we’re in this predicament is because no-one did the opposite – demanding that the USA should be fair, reciprocal, respect rights etc. What probably happened was some even more opaque, but lower level, and less effective lobbying from the Commission Representation in Washington.

    The notion that these sorts of things could ever be played out in the open is absolutely pie in the sky. No negotiation ever works by putting all your cards on the table. Yes, as much needs to be done in the open as possible, but what you’re advocating is neither achievable or desirable.

    The best the EU can be is a bit more ethical, bit more egalitarian, bit less militaristic, bit more social, bit greener counterbalance to the United States in world affairs. I reckon the Clinton-Buzek thing demonstrates that rather well.

  • Brusselsblogger |

    Well, why did nobody do the opposite? Because we (the Europeans) are not pressuring other countries to give up fundemental rights on privacy and data protection. And that is what Hillary did, which (in this case!) is not ok. There I agree with Julien. (In the end what is acceptable or not also depends to the content, not only on the action itself).

    The really ugly thing about SWIFT is that the EU’s justice and home affairs ministers – and several centre-right MEPs – are arguing that the US has helped Europe already a lot with the US bank data spying programme (called “TFTP”) – with a system that no EU member state would have the guts to implement in Europe itself. This is very similar to the torture cases, where people are brought outside the EU (with the help of US) to other countries for “interrogation”. Only that this time we are not sending people but our banking data. Both is absolutely unacceptable.

  • Jon |

    @Brussels Blogger – that’s no good! Your line is essentially: Clinton should not lobby, because Europeans have been too rubbish to lobby!

  • Brusselsblogger |

    You misunderstood me:

    There is no European TFTP (terrorist finance tracking programme) so there is nothing to lobby about regarding reciprocity. (The agreement even states that the USA would provide data once the EU has set up a similar programme.) The problem is that the USA wants data of EU citizens and business. And that is indeed first and foremost the EU’s own business and not one of US (to stay with the terminology of Julien :)

    Apart from that, also the question is: who should lobby? Commission and member states are FOR the agreement. I don’t think that the European Parliament has a big representation in Washington or is even allowed to lobby for specific dossiers, is it?

  • Ralf Grahn |

    First: After reading the blog posts and comments, lobbying is a legitimate activity. Should we beat around the bush and call it diplomacy instead? Anybody happier? Actually, as Jon says, open lobbying is preferable.

    Second: Lobbyists or diplomats have their own interests at heart. So MEPs like all others who are subjected to overtures should listen politely – and then do the right thing.

    Three: The anti-terrorism deals with the USA, including SWIFT/TFTP, fall short fall short of EU data protection rules, say the European and the national data protection officers. The Council and the Commission have made the flimsiest of cases on the purported benefits of the SWIFT deal for anti-terrorism purposes, while keeping the European Parliament and the public in the dark.

    Four: Who were the 23 LIBE members who on such dubious grounds showed more deference to the US administration’s “war on terror” than to the fundamental rights of EU citizens?

  • Brusselsblogger |

    Jon, thanks for the update with the link to Daniel’s story.

    This is really now becoming very strange. Do the spokespersons really think it is useful to lie to bloggers? And why are they doing it?

  • robert |

    What is Jon’s opinion of the claim that the USA administration are supposedly annoyed by the lack of clarity as to who actually represents the EU (and consequently who they should talk to in the first instance)?

    Should they talk to the President of the European Council or the (rotating) President of the Council of the EU or the President of the European Commission or the High Representitive of for Foreign Policy?

  • Julien Frisch |

    @robert

    When the USA deals with the European Union, it will have to deal with whatever complex situation it will find, with whoever is responsible for the particular issue at stake. The only problem is that some of these responsibilities are not yet sorted out…

  • Jeremy Hargreaves |

    I am not sure whether the idea that senior government / legislative officials from different countries should not talk to each other is worse because of its illiberalism or impracticalness – but it certainly is both…

  • Brusselsblogger |

    Jeremy, I think it really depends on the context.

    While (in principle) I have absolutely no problem at all when Clinton calls Mr Buzek I do not appreciate it that she did it in this case (for the reasons stated above). And the fact that Mr Buzek is denying such a call increases my fear that opinions in the EP are being distorted.

    Banking data and hunting its own terrorists is Europe’s own business. It must not be outsourced to another country.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves |

    Hi – in that case I think what you’re really saying is that you disagree with what she had to say to him. I’m with you on that, but I’m not sure it’s quite fair to limit politicians of different countries to talking to each other only when I agree with what they’re saying…

    If Buzek is now denying this happened I agree that is quite bizarre. I’m not really up on what the health requirements for the job of being EP President are, but if the current incumbent is really suffering from delusions that the US Secretary of State is ringing him up and tweeting about it before realising his mistake, then I think we may have a problem…

  • Brusselsblogger |

    One more comment on this: now (and probably already in the recent phone calls and othe rinterventions) the US administration threatens to bypass the EU level (and its institutions) by saying that in case of a no they would pressure each and every EU member state to make a bilaterial agreement.

    The is beyond normal lobbying and should be rejected. Everybody can bring forward arguments for his/her case. But threatening to ignore the European Parliament as such (and pressuring mainly one country – Belgium) is not acceptable.

    See also my summary here: Why MEPS must reject the SWIFT agreement

  • Jeremy Hargreaves |

    Surely they are bluffing? The Americans cannot possibly really want to deal with 27 different countries on this?

  • robert |

    > The Americans cannot possibly really want to deal with 27 different countries on this?

    No, what they like doing is picking off individual countries and doing deals with them and, in a way, setting them against the other countries so the EU becomes divided. Seeing as threats may well play a part on these ‘negotiations’, the various European countries should realise it’s easier to stand up to such coercion as a single, unified body.

So, what do you think ?