EU-US legislative cooperation can reach critical mass in 2011

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

As the dust settles after the US mid-term elections, Congress should not put on hold behind-the-scenes movements that have strengthened the bond between Congress and the European Parliament in the past few months, argue two analysts from the Bertelsmann Foundation.

The following contribution is authored by Thomas Fischer, executive director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung's Brussels office and Tyson Barker, senior project manager of the Transatlantic Relations Project at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington. 

"Since the beginning of 2010, the Obama Administration has taken note of the importance of the European Parliament in post-Lisbon Europe. In a major speech laying out the long-term foreign policy strategy of the US administration in September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the European Parliament as one of the 'influential new players' in the world to which the US should increase its outreach.

But the awareness of the European assembly in the pantheon of the world's powerful legislatures has not fully filtered to the US Congress. The mid-term elections in the United States this month revolved primarily around domestic concerns, not international outreach. 

As the dust settles, Europe is facing a Congress that is more Republican and more inward-looking than any in recent memory. At the same time, Congress must look outward to jump-start economic growth and create a secure legal framework in the face of accelerating technology and movement of goods, services and people. In this, the European Parliament can be a meaningful partner.

And even in the midst of an intense election environment in the US, some behind-the-scenes movements have been taking place to strengthen the bond between the two bodies. Here are some examples:

  • At the urging of Atlanticist Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV), US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has slowly taken steps to transform US participation in the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue (TLD) into a meaningful forum for EU-US legislative cooperation. Pelosi had indicated that Congress should have permanent membership of 15 Congressmen and -women in the TLD. Until now, US membership has been ad hoc, a point that has undermined the consistency of the group.
  • In the House of Representatives, a bipartisan trio of powerful Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-CA), Bart Gordon (D-TE) and Alcee Hasting (D-FL), are preparing to introduce a concurrent resolution that would create a Congressional office to coordinate EU-related activities across relevant Committees from Homeland Security to Energy and Commerce. 
  • The two sides have discussed holding joint hearings on important issues. One such proposal envisions convening the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the International Trade Committee (ITRA) of the European Parliament on non-tariff barriers to trade. Even a cursory glance at the political cycles in both continents will recognise that movement on legislation on financial services reform, currency policy, energy and climate change, homeland security, budgets, and economic governance and immigration have been roughly synchronised, although policy outcomes are different. 
  • The upcoming Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue in December 2010 in Silicon Valley, California will look at questions of e-governance, ICANN, net neutrality and issues regarding Internet privacy. Legislators will meet with some of the largest and most innovative tech firms [on] these issues, which have significant economic, security and political implications for citizens in the US and Europe.
  • In April 2010, the European Parliament opened up its first external European Parliament Liaison Office (EPLO) in Washington, DC tasked with building up the Congressional-European Parliament relationship more fully.
  • Congress, notably, has taken greater notice [of] the political life of the European Union. In recent months, it has held a hearing on the US-EU trade relationship and released a statement on treatment of Roma migrants to Western Europe.

While these measures take the European Parliament-Congressional relationship in the right direction, significant structural and political barriers remain. Before this relationship can reach its full potential, there are at least four crucial areas that both sides must examine.

First, particularly during this transition from Democratic to Republican leadership in the House, it will be important for next Congress to continue with and step up the positive actions taken over the past year.  The next TLD chair, presumably Florida Congressman Cliff Stearns, should encourage the new House leadership to continue to elevate this relationship through increased hearings, exchanges and fixed Congressional TLD membership.

Second, Congressmen and MEPs must impress upon each other the notion that the case for US-EU legislative cooperation should be made on the basis of global standard setting for critical industries and rule of law in their home constituencies.

Many members of Congress have yet to connect the fact that harmonised or mutually recognised standards between the US and Europe can create enormous advantages for both economies. Recasting the US-EU relationship on economic grounds will be crucial for creating a more robust and sustainable dialogue.

Third, MEPs and the EPLO should look at the composition of the new Congress to create ties that can mature over time. This Congress will have a bumper crop of over 65 freshmen Representatives and Senators all looking for particular issues in which they can carve out a special policy niche.

The best time to strike is when these newly-minted legislators are in their first term and then develop that relationship over time as they take on weighty Committee chairmanships and positions in leadership. A strategic approach to Congress with a long time horizon will ultimately prove the most fruitful for both sides.

Fourth, tough Congressional ethics rules put into place in recent years are a strong inhibitor to Congressmen and -women and their staffs to allow them to travel and connect with colleagues in the EU and other countries. These rules can sometimes be counter-productive and create barriers, for example, for Congressmen working on timely and critical issues related to foreign security and economic policy.

At times, they limit the ability of key personnel to travel with Congressional delegations abroad, require Congressmen and –women to fly economy class for flights under 12 hours, and sometimes lead to costly use of military planes in order to circumvent difficult ethics rules.  The new Congress under the leadership of presumptive Speaker John Boehner should look into smarter ethics requirements for Congressional and staff travel that balance work-related requirements with concerns about ethics.  

The Congressional-European Parliament relationship is ripe for development. The outcomes will not always be to everyone's liking but if these recommendations are taken in concert, the newly constituted 112th Congress and the increasingly assertive 7th European Parliament can lay the groundwork for a new paradigm of legislative dialogue."

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