Mr. Buzek Comes to Washington: Why the European Parliament Matters to the United States
April 27, 2010
Q1: Why is Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament and former Polish prime minister, visiting Washington?
A1: In his first visit to Washington as president of the European Parliament (EP), Mr. Buzek will meet with senior Obama administration officials, including Vice President Biden, and members of Congress, as well as open the European Parliament’s new liaison office near Capitol Hill. President Buzek was recently in the news when, in spite of a telephone conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the European Parliament struck down an important law that allowed Europe to transfer banking data to the United States for the purposes of tracking and eliminating terrorist financing (the so-called Swift Agreement). It was the first time a U.S. secretary of state called the European Parliament; and the Parliament’s answer to Washington was a resounding “no,” due to privacy concerns and civil liberties issues. The United States and the European Union are now working to restart the data-sharing program as quickly as possible in order to further advance their cooperation against terrorism.
Q2: What is the European Parliament?
A2: The European Parliament is one of the three pillars of the European Union’s “institutional triangle,” in addition to the European Commission and the Council of the European Union. Its 736 members (from 99 German representatives to 5 from Malta) represent the 375 million voters from the 27 countries that elect them directly, representing 7 pan-European political groups. The European Parliament was created in the 1950s at the inception of what was eventually to become the European Union, and its powers have expanded significantly over time. It now coauthors most of the EU legislation (with the Council of the European Union, where national governments sit), has a key voice on budgetary issues, and oversees broadly the work of the European Commission from approving the appointment of senior officials to appointing the next president of the Commission. And it has proven willing to assert its powers on a variety of topics.
Q3: How do President Buzek and the decisions by the European Parliament affect transatlantic relations?
A3: The European Parliament is a growing force to be reckoned with, not only within the European Union itself but also in Washington. While the Parliament does not necessarily have a role in foreign policy per se, its decisionmaking powers should not be underestimated, as witnessed in the Swift Agreement case. The European Parliament must approve all international agreements under its jurisdiction, such as trade policy, and is a powerful voice on issues of major significance to the U.S. government and to the U.S. private sector, such as climate change, energy security, economic and financial regulation, intellectual property, or neighborhood policy (e.g., former Soviet states) and enlargement (e.g., the Balkans).
Q4: Why are Mr. Buzek’s visit and the European Parliament important in general?
A4: President Buzek, a former Polish prime minister (1997–2001) and founding member of the Polish Solidarity Movement, wants the European Parliament to have a strong and open relationship with Washington. He is particularly interested in upgrading the Parliament’s relationship with the U.S. Congress. Some ideas that have been suggested are establishing a reciprocal congressional presence in Europe, holding more meetings between relevant EP and congressional committees, and energizing the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue, a forum created in 1995 to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament.
But it is not only the U.S. Congress that must invest in upgrading its relationship with the European Parliament. The Obama administration must also make its own investment in fundamentally understanding the new role played by the Parliament and its potential impact on transatlantic cooperation, whether that is oversight of EU institutions and budgets or the activities of the Parliament itself, in order to avoid being “Swifted” again. Vice President Biden’s visit to Brussels next week and his anticipated major address before the Parliament is the perfect opportunity to make a major down payment on the United States’ long-term investment and sustained engagement with the European Parliament.
Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a French career diplomat, is currently a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather Conley is a senior fellow and director of the CSIS Europe Program.
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