By Hugh S. Galford
As the European Union (EU) enters its second half-century, the organization faces a novel constellation of issues and concerns. From its inception as the European Coal and Steel Community, a union of six nations at the heart of Western Europe, today’s EU (25 countries) is a global force both economically and politically, but its major focus is still internal.
In a recent interview, John Bruton, former Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and current Head of Delegation of the Commission of the European Union in Washington, discussed the wide range of issues and concerns facing the EU. Ambassador Bruton has had a long and distinguished career, beginning with his election to the Irish Parliament (the Dáil) in 1969 when he was only 22, one year after graduating from University College Dublin with a degree in Economics and Politics. He was returned to Parliament for the next 35 years. He served as the junior Minister of Education (1973-1977); Minister for Finance (1981-1982 and 1986-1987); Minister for Trade, Commerce and Tourism (1983-1986) and was elected Fine Gael’s Party Leader in 1990.
His term as Prime Minister (1994-1997) coincided with Ireland’s emergence as the “Celtic Tiger”. In 1993, Ireland accounted for five percent of total US investment in Europe; in 1997, Ireland’s share totaled 15 percent. Irish economic growth jumped from 2.7 percent in 1993 to 11.1 percent in 1997. While justifiably proud of his home country’s growth, he takes little credit for it, pointing rather to the end of Ireland’s debts of the 1970s and 1980s, and to its IT-literate young population. Even after the 2001 economic downturn, Ireland’s economic growth still outpaces that of other European countries.
Bruton was also involved with the Northern Ireland peace talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday Accords. Further, he presided over Ireland’s EU Presidency in 1996, and helped finalize the Stability and Growth Pact, a major prerequisite for the introduction of the Euro. In the early 2000s, Bruton was a leading member of the Convention that drafted the first-ever European Constitution, which was turned down by French and Danish voters in 2005. The ratification process has not been abandoned, though the original timetable has been postponed. He began his term as EU Ambassador to Washington in November 2004.
The EU’s history can be traced to the post-war years and the efforts of Jean Monnet, a French diplomat. Following WWII, the French took control of coal production in Germany’s Ruhr Valley in an effort to simultaneously boost French industry and to weaken Germany. By 1950, this policy was beginning to give rise to the same backlash in Germany that had followed her defeat in WWI. Realizing that any attempt to cripple Germany could once again lead to war, Monnet suggested that France, Germany, and any other countries wishing to join should form a common High Authority to oversee all Franco-German steel and coal production. “To create Europe is to create peace,” Monnet said. Out of this agreement came the European Coal and Steel Community, which grew into the European Union of today. For Monnet, the European states “must…form a federation or a European entity that would make them into a common economic unit,” which, he saw, was “imperative for the preservation of peace.”
One might think that representing the EU—a multinational organization—to the US would be a difficult task. Surprisingly, though, Ambassador Bruton says, “It’s easier to explain the European Union to Americans than to other Europeans.” Though separated by distance and outlook, shared basic structures make his job here in Washington easier.
“Here in the US,” he says, “you have a federal system, a Supreme Court, and so on.” Europeans’ long history of state systems and unfamiliarity (and, one might say, discomfort) with a federal system means that selling Europe is harder at home than it is here. “Power in the EU is divided between the federation and the member states, with the European Court of Justice defining the rights of EU institutions against those of member states. The European Parliament can be compared to the House of Representatives, while the Council of Ministers—the heads of each of the 25 member states—can be compared to the Senate.”
The three major areas of EU policy fall to the Council of Ministers. Issues of interstate commerce are set by majority vote of the Council of Ministers with the consent of the European Parliament. Foreign policy, on the other hand, must be set by unanimous vote of the Council of Ministers; the Parliament has input into the debate, but their consent is not required. Finally, with regard to cross-border crime, most decisions are by unanimous vote of the Council of Ministers, though a simple majority suffices.
EU policy, Bruton says, comes down to “a balancing of abstract principle versus what is realistic to achieve. In every area of life, values are being balanced off of other values.”
The EU, Ambassador Bruton says, “is the only multinational democracy in the world.” The three major issues he sees facing the Union go to the heart of both its multinational and democratic foundations. First, he says, is completing the EU’s internal market and the Euro. “We must maximize the efficiency of the economy internally, through the division of labor, production, and so on.” Second, he sees the need to “further democratize the EU by trying to make it more visibly democratic and transparent.” Bruton’s work on the Constitution would have done this, by superseding and unifying all previous agreements and treaties under one document. Third, the EU must “make our neighborhood more stable and democratic. We must open up membership to other states if they are in Europe, and to help our non-European neighbors with their economies and democratic structures.”
“The basic idea of the EU,” Bruton says, “is to harness economic interdependence to lead to political stability and peace.” The last great period of globalization, he points out, was the period of about 1890-1914, but this did not stop the outbreak of World War I which was, in his view, “an avoidable war. The set of international institutions, where political passions could be aired without disrupting economic interdependence, weren’t there. Now they are. For member states to live or die, flourish or wither, they must give great care to subsume purely national ambitions to a common European ambition. We must learn that if our neighbor prospers, we prosper.”
While this basic idea is laudable, it is often difficult for the man in the street to see how the EU affects him positively, and how he affects what happens in Brussels. In the US, Ambassador Bruton says, the head of the Executive branch is elected by the people every four years. “Individuals across the US thus have the same conversation everywhere. It brings Americans together, either in support of or in opposition to a given candidate.”
Europeans, Bruton says, need the same. The EU is largely an intellectual construct to most; “people are more attached to people than they are to ideas. The EU needs a human face, and needs a more direct and immediate involvement of its people.” By allowing direct popular election of the EU’s leaders, as was envisioned in the now moribund proposed Constitution, member states’ populations would have a direct link to the Union and its policies. For Bruton, political campaigns “are supposed to be educational for both the candidates and the electorate. Candidates recognize the major issues in the various countries, and the electorate gets to realize how policy affects, for example, Estonia as well as Germany.”
Despite the current lull in structural reform of the EU, Burton holds out great hope. “The formation of the European Union,” he says, “was one of, if not the, most imaginative acts of international statesmanship in the twentieth century. We must need to adapt, even while we are doing much good work.”
One example of this good work is in the area of energy development and use. The EU is concerned that it is “unduly reliant” on imported energy. As a whole, Ambassador Bruton says, the EU imports 50 percent of its energy now, and is heading toward 70 percent. “This is acceptable only if it is clear that supplies can’t be manipulated for political of other reasons.” Much of the EU’s imported natural gas comes from Russia, and concerns arose last winter when Russia temporarily cut gas supplies to the Ukraine.
The EU, Burton says, has a partnership agreement with the Russian Federation and other gas suppliers. He is confident that mutually acceptable agreements can be maintained. “Russia needs to sell their gas as much as we need to buy it—they have major infrastructure investments that they need to cover.”
The Union “is working on becoming, if not more energy independent, then certainly more autonomous by promoting renewables and making energy use more efficient.” He notes that the EU has no overall energy policy at the moment. “We need to find ways to share power internally. There needs to be better integration of energy grids, for example—this would give us economies of scale and related efficiencies.”
The Union is investing heavily in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Its “Intelligent Energy—Europe” program has provided 250 million Euros for research from 2003-2006, and the European Commission has proposed a significant increase in funding for the 2007-2013 budget cycle. The Union’s goal is to provide at least 12 percent of its total energy needs and 21 percent of its electricity demand from renewable sources by 2010.
Ambassador Bruton sees no rifts developing in the close political ties shared by the US and EU. A new interim agreement on Passenger Name Records for EU airlines flying into the US was passed in early October, balancing European concerns over privacy and where this information is passed, and American security concerns. The ambassador says the EU is “very concerned” by North Korea’s claim that it has tested a nuclear weapon. “We stand ready to work with our partners to deal with this,” he says.
The EU is also working hard to see a successful end to the war in Iraq. Ambassador Bruton says that while European public opinion was divided on if the invasion was the right thing to do at the time—while a “bare majority” of member states supported the invasion—the situation now is that Europe and the US “share the same objective: to see a successful transition of Iraq to a law-based democracy where everyone has human rights. The question is now how to do it.” He says that the EU is working to fund parliament and the development of other democratic institutions in Iraq.
Ambassador Bruton is half-way through his tenure here in Washington. Having met with President Bush, former presidents, and congressional leaders, he sees the future of EU-US relations as bright. “No other president has consulted with the EU as has President Bush, especially in his second term. There is a very high level of engagement. Americans are very open to the EU and are ready to listen. They recognize the EU’s importance internationally.”