Dealing with the Parliament

by Henry Farrell on June 21, 2004

If you believe the conventional wisdom in transatlantic policy circles, a Kerry administration won’t make much difference to EU-US relations. Kerry would differ from Bush more on style than on substance: Europe and the US would still be divided on the important security and economic issues. Whether this argument is true or not (personally, I’m dubious), the transatlantic relationship is likely to enter a period of turmoil regardless of who occupies the White House. The reason: the increasing interest and involvement of the European Parliament in international affairs.

Parliamentary decision-making has traditionally made for awkward international politics. Elected parliamentarians are more likely than diplomats or governmental officials to take strong policy stands that keep voters at home happy, but that make it more difficult to reach agreement on issues of international contention. The US has by no means been immune to this in the past; one can point to items of legislation beloved of Congress but deplored by the administration such as the Helms-Burton Act, which have greatly complicated international politics. Traditionally, however, the EU has been semi-insulated from these pressures – high politics has been the preserve of national governments, while trade negotiations and the like have been carried out by the Commission, which has been partially insulated from political pressures.

Now, however, the new European Parliament is looking around for ways to ingratiate itself with the voters back home (the Parliament is notoriously lacking in popular legitimacy). It’s a safe bet that one of the ways it will do this is by whipping up opposition to deals between the EU and US on security issues, and on politically sensitive economic/trade issues such as genetically modified organisms. This is a relatively cheap and easy way for it to get political kudos, especially given America’s unpopularity with European voters.

The Parliament has some foreign policy powers and is going to be trying to carve out more by pushing its competences as far as they will go. Officially, it has a right to give or withhold its assent to international treaties – it’s starting to try and expand that right into a veto over everyday relations and quasi-agreements between the EU and US in security and economic policy. If the draft constitution somehow passes referendums in Britain and elsewhere, expect the Parliament to try to make the new Foreign Minister more accountable to it, as it has rather successfully done with the Commission’s President. If not, expect the Parliament to use the powers that it has to agitate on issues of concern, just as it’s currently doing in the “Passenger Name Record controversy”:, where it’s taking the Commission and Council to court for exceeding their competences, and (in its view) selling European citizens’ privacy down the river.

Either way, it’s safe to predict that EU-US politics will become a lot more contentious, as the Parliament takes a much more active role on internationally controversial issues. In general, I reckon that this has to be a good thing: more democracy is better than less, even if it has awkward or even bad consequences in individual cases. Still I’m glad that I’m not one of the American or European diplomats who’s going to have to come to terms with the Parliament’s newfound assertiveness over the next few years. It’s going to make for some sticky international politics.

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04.14.05 at 1:48 pm



Anthony 06.22.04 at 2:34 am

Continuing terrorist assaults may not have the same effect as seen in Spain – it may make European voters more hawkish eventually and more willing to agree with the USA. Especially if this can be tied into a new face in the Whitehouse with a different style.

You also seem to be ignoring the potential change in EU following its expansion and rising levels of euroscepticism in the existing member states. The EU getting involved in international affairs is as likely to increase this, as lower it. Also, the antagonistic “French EU” may be attenuated by the “New Europe” to create a new equilibrium between the US and Europe.


John Quiggin 06.22.04 at 5:01 am

Populism from the EU Parliament is long overdue. In many ways, the biggest single question facing the developed world is that of the relative merits of American and European social models.

The EUP is a natural venue for defending the European model(s), and if it starts with some rabble-rousing, so much the better in my view.


Sebastian Holsclaw 06.22.04 at 7:14 am

“In many ways, the biggest single question facing the developed world is that of the relative merits of American and European social models.”

Well that and which major Western city will get nuked first if we follow the European diplomatic model with respect to Iran.

Sorry I couldn’t resist. ;)


Andrew Boucher 06.22.04 at 8:03 am

The assertiveness of the European Parliament is not likely to be up there among the major problems facing trans-Atlantic relations.

The major problems are always structural, not procedural. The structural problems are when interests do not coincide.


derrida derider 06.22.04 at 1:39 pm

Sebastian, its the US diplomatic model that’s motivating Iran to get nukes.

I reckon if I was an Iranian national security adviser of whatever ideological hue, I’d take one look at the map, and one look at Bush’s pre-emption doctrine, and set out to get my hands on some nukes as soon as possible, whatever the diplomatic cost.


Pete 06.22.04 at 2:17 pm

I’m going to say something really heretical here: terrorism is not the thing of overriding importance that some people make it out to be, and pre-emptive military solutions are not necessarily more effective than negotiation or simply leaving people alone.

The British response to e.g. the Brighton Hotel bombing (which nearly killed the entire Cabinet), or the Docklands bomb, was not a massive invasion of the state from which the terroists came (Ireland) nor the state which sheltered and funded them (the US). There was a crackdown, but not as serious as past ones and the powers of internment without trial were not used on a wide scale. Eventually by a process of negotiation and allowing the moderate wing of Irish Nationalism to share power in Northern Ireland, a ceasefire has been reached.

And as for Iran, it’s worth reading up on the history of Anglo-American involvment there. The “death to America” lot are driven more by nationalism than by Islam, and aren’t interested in nukes other than as a deterrent against what they see as the Evil Empire.


Daniel Geffen 06.22.04 at 6:29 pm

I’ve posted more thoughts on the implications of the EP jumping into the foreign policy fray here. Sorry for the hit-and-run comment, but I seem to have lost the part of my brain that handles how to use Trackback.


q 06.23.04 at 4:05 pm

Presentation might be less black and white. I think Kerry would
-use the term “EVIL” less
-avoid saying “Either your with us or against us”.

I noticed Colin Powell used the term “EVIL-DOERS” again.

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