European Affairs


Ambassador John Bruton: The EU's Man in Washington     Print Email

EU and U.S. Need to Imagine the Planet's Future Together

John BrutonThe Washington office of the European Commission’s Delegation represents the EU in the U.S. Interestingly, it pre-dates not only the Commission but even the EU and even the EEC. It was set up in 1954, under the auspices of Jean Monnet, two years after the day in 1952 when the United States recognized the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)—the first non-member to extend international recognition to this seminal entity. In opening the ECSC office in Washington in 1954, Monnet was partly motivated by a political setback in Europe when plans for a European Defense Community fell through. He was concerned that U.S. officials might lose enthusiasm for the European integration project and wanted to make a move to maintain momentum in Washington.

Since 2004, the mission has been headed by Ambassador John Bruton. A former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach), he helped transform the Irish economy into the “Celtic Tiger.” He served as Finance Minister in the 1980s. And during his tenure as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997, Ireland had one of the fastest-expanding economies of the world, growing at an annual average rate of 8.7 percent, peaking at 11.1 percent in 1997.


The boom reflected the cumulative effect of transfer payments from the EU over the years since 1973, when Ireland joined the EU and accelerated its transformation to a high-tech industrial economy. But credit has also been given to government policies in the 1990’s that featured low corporate taxation and restraint in government spending. These policies helped Ireland capitalize on its relatively low-cost labor market—to continue modernizing.

In Ireland, Bruton was deeply involved in the Northern Irish Peace Process and, before being appointed to his present post, served as a leading member of the Convention that drafted the first-ever European Constitution.

In Washington as ambassador, he combines his work-load of negotiating work with Congress and other parts of the U.S. government with a representational role in which he is readily outspoken both to Americans and to Europeans—all of whom can follow his encounters and reflections in the weekly messages that he writes and posts on the delegation’s website:, Ambassador’s corner, weekly message. In all these contexts, he often dons a statesman’s mantle in trying to get people—on both sides of the Atlantic— to peer beyond today’s business at hand and instead peer over the horizon and plan, as he says himself, “out of the box.”

He sat down in March for a talk with European Affairs, of which excerpts follow.

European Affairs: Ambassador, since the EU does not have embassies as such, the office you head has a title of its own: Delegation of the European Commission to the U.S. In fact, what does it mean, how does it work and what is your role?

John Bruton: Formally and legally, we represent the European Commission, but in practice we seek to represent the interests of all the European Union institutions. The Delegation is the only representation of the EU as a whole in the United States. We have 80 people, preparing reports for, and facilitating the work of, the Council of Ministers, which represents the Member States and has responsibility for some of the more political EU tasks— military, security and that type of thing. Likewise, we assist the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice in their conversations with their American counterparts.

In our work directly for the Commission, trade is a major issue, with a wide remit covering everything to do with financial relationships across the Atlantic —insurance, banking, accounting standards. And it handles anything to do with climate change, energy, transport, aviation, passenger security, goods security. From both sides of the Atlantic, we’re working hard on the idea of harmonizing rules and regulations between our two economies to boost growth. We want to reduce the costs on the shoulders of our customers: for example, currently, new models of motor cars have to be crashed twice, once to comply with the EU standard and again to comply with the U.S. standard. We cannot afford to place more restrictions in the way of our businesses if we are to beat our global competitors. To find lower common denominators for us, there will be panels of technocrats from both sides, but they will only make swift progress if politicians set the targets. So I give special priority to relations with Congress, devoting about 30 percent of my time to this, and have got to know a large number of members. All regulations ultimately have a political source so it’s vital to involve Congress, which wields tremendous regulatory powers.

Of course, beyond trade, the Commission is involved in policies across the board. For example, as a dispenser of aid, the Commission is intimately involved in the Middle East Peace Process: Europe, via the Commission, provides a great deal of the money that allows the Palestinian entity to continue to exist to the extent that is does. So External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner and, as her representative here, myself, are involved in Middle East policy even though the more political aspects of that EU policy are pursued by Javier Solana, who is the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. In practice, the tasks are so intertwined that really there isn’t a very clear distinction at any stage of any day whether I’m working for the Commission or the Council. It’s all an inter-related flow.

EA: Where exactly does Solana fit between the Commission and the Council of Ministers?

JB: He [Javier Solana] is the High Representative and also the Secretary-General of the Council [with special responsibilities for being “the face of EU diplomacy”]. The Council of Ministers [the EU’s main decision-making body] makes its decisions by unanimity in dealing with foreign policy. It’s a very challenging task, and Mr. Solana undertakes it in synergy with the successive Presidencies of the Council, and the Commission, not only to understand the preoccupations of his interlocutors outside Europe, but to ensure that he is bringing the 27 with him on any initiative. The situation of the Commission is different, at least in some areas. It can proceed on decisions by majority in the Council of Ministers—say, on trade. So there’s a slight difference in the dynamic there.

EA: How are you faring without an EU constitutional treaty? And where do you think the constitutional process is going from here?

JB: The first thing to say is that the EU without the constitution is working remarkably— even surprisingly—well. There has been no crisis of functioning despite expansion. Council meetings seem actually to be shorter and more efficient with 27 than they used to be with 15 Member-States. The Commission is also enlarged, but that seems to be working very well, perhaps with greater leadership from its President than would have been the pattern with a smaller Commission. Some of the reforms that the constitution might have brought about are definitely necessary in the long-run, but in the shorter term their absence hasn’t inhibited our progressing on the issues where we need to. Energy is a good example. Necessity was the mother of invention for the EU: It was clear that we needed to do something about energy, and it was clear that the 27 countries couldn’t do it on their own. So even though the Treaty provisions are not as strong in that area as we would like them to be, the Commission and the EU as a whole are stepping into that gap.

However, the failure to pass the constitution in France and the Netherlands was a psychological blow for the EU, even though it may not have created that many practical problems yet. That setback has to be overcome in the medium-term. To do that, a number of possibilities are being considered. One is that we would subtract from the existing draft constitution and present a slimmed-down treaty that some countries might decide they could pass without a referendum. That’s the proposal being made in France by Nicolas Sarkozy. Other suggestions involve adding new elements—for example, a more elaborate social dimension that countries would have freedom to opt-in or opt-out of. (Britain didn’t opt-in to the Social Charter.) So you could create a “more social Europe” for those who regard that as important without causing a difficulty for those who don’t.

Other people, amongst whom I would count myself, think that while the constitution was a very good document in enhancing democratic participation in EU decision- making, it didn't go far enough.... For that, the dynamic of European Parliament elections needs to be changed. At the moment they are effectively 27 different national elections where people express sentiments about their national governments rather than about Europe. Very often European Parliament elections are seen as mid-term tests for national governments rather than great debates about the direction that the European Union should be taking. There were two possibilities raised in the original Laeken Declaration which set up the Convention (on the constitution-drafting) for enhancing the European character of the political debate about the EU:

• One was that the European Parliament constituencies might be altered to create some seats for people who are elected on a Europe-wide basis—MPs at-large for the whole of Europe elected by everyone in Europe on EU-related considerations.

• Another possibility is that an officer of the European Union, perhaps the President of the Commission or perhaps some other important officer such as a President of the Council would be elected by the people of Europe.

The Convention didn’t really consider either of those options even though it was supposed to. If we returned to the Declaration, we might come forward with a renewed treaty that would probably contain 90 percent or even 100 percent of the innovations in the existing draft and also other elements which would be attractive enough for citizens so that member states which might have voted ‘no’ on the first occasion would vote ‘yes’ on the second.

EA: How do you think the EU is perceived in America both by the public and by policy-makers?

JB: The first thing that I would like to say is that it is much easier to explain the European Union to Americans than it is to explain it to Europeans. Every American school-child is familiar with federal-style systems of government, which is roughly how we are evolving in the EU. In Europe, most countries don’t have national experience with federal systems (apart from Germany and its federal system is quite different). So it is more difficult to explain this multi-layered, checks and balances system that is the EU to citizens of European countries who don’t have anything comparable in their own countries to relate it to. Across the United States, when I talk about the EU system I can see Americans’ eyes light up with immediate recognition of what I’m explaining. I haven’t found the same experience in Ireland, for example, when I was a politician there trying to explain the EU.

On a point of difference, I think American policy-makers probably see the world through the prism of sovereign states and with a preoccupation about security— broadly defined, whether it be military security or energy security or commercial security— whereas Europeans see the world more in terms of states cooperating with one another on the basis of mutually-agreed rules. The EU reaction to a given problem will often be, let’s see, can we get a United Nations resolution on this? What does international law tell us about this? The American reaction frequently will be: What’s the problem, let’s solve it, let’s put together a deal to solve this pragmatically. Europeans have—I think it’s entirely understandable, entirely proper—a concern for international law and international procedures because that’s the method whereby we ourselves built the European Union. So we have found it a tried-and-true method—whether climate-change treaties, arms-control treaties or treaties on almost anything. The United States has more of a tendency to want to take each problem separately and deal with it rather than try to find an over-arching solution through an international agency.

EA: What have you found to be the biggest misconception that Americans have about the European Union?

JB: A common misunderstanding, and it’s politically motivated in some cases, is the idea that the EU has ambitions to be a superpower. This is so completely aberrant with the facts: anyone familiar with what goes on in Brussels would know how ridiculous that idea is. The EU is an organization that works together on common tasks out of necessity because the European member states on their own are too small to deal with most of these issues individually. It’s a very practical organization, the EU, with very practical goals. It doesn’t have any great global ambitions, other than to facilitate peace and security.

EA: What has been the most surprising thing about living here?

JB: How religious America is. Living here it is impressed upon one that Americans in general, of all ages, take their religion very seriously and it isn’t regarded as subsidiary part of their life or an insurance policy that you take out in case there is an afterlife. It is very much regarded as part of life in the world today. Americans practice their religion more visibly than many Europeans. I come from a country which is itself very religious, but one is still struck by this here. There are several explanations for it, everybody here in the United States is a descendant of a once lonely immigrant who arrived here almost friendless and who found, probably through the synagogue or the church, a way of integrating with the wider society, and being less isolated. Whereas I think Europeans who remained in their own countries were able to take these things for granted. I don’t think myself that Europeans are less spiritual than Americans, I think they are as spiritual. But the public expression of it is much greater here. I think this is a very good thing, but I think there are risks in literalism and fundamentalism in religious thinking, in taking certain words or certain precepts and basically saying you don’t have to look at the world around you in an inquiring way, once you have those words and you understand them. I think that is a risk in the political field that one has to guard against.

EA: Where do you see the greatest potential for Transatlantic cooperation?

JB: I think energy is an area where certainly we are going to cooperate more closely in the research and development area and in managing climate change. I think that the United States and Europe are converging now in their concerns about climate change. This trend is reinforced by the fact that we both have concerns about addiction to foreign oil, so altruistic long-term global concerns are now combined with very immediate practical security concerns. I think we can agree on a cap-and-trade system that encompasses every country in the world, including China and India. We are going to have the UN conference in 2009 [to devise a new longer term treaty, taking over from the Kyoto Treaty]. I think there’s a real possibility by that time the EU and U.S. attitudes will be convergent rather than divergent.

But in the longer run, I’m hoping to see progress is the Middle East. It is important to understand that the sense of dispossession felt by Palestinian Arabs who lost their homes and lands, not much more than 50 years ago, is a very deep one. Anyone who has suffered dispossession of any kind will tend to go over and over and over again on it in their minds and magnify the significance of their dispossession. So we have got to find a resolution, not just a practical, but also an emotional resolution to this sense of dispossession felt by Palestinians, which affects attitudes in the wider Arab and Muslim world as well. Finding such a resolution is a vital and urgent interest for Israel, for its security, for the United States and for Europe. We have got to work very hard and very imaginatively on that.... People will only make difficult decisions if they feel they are in a position of relative, reasonable strength; people who feel they are in a very weak position are not going to make difficult decisions.

A great task over the next 50 years will be to accommodate the perfectly natural and appropriate re-emergence of China and India as great players in the world. Europe and America are the two parts of the world that have done the best out of the last 200 years of history. We have accumulated great wealth in that period, and on both sides of the Atlantic we have in common similar values that we wish to defend: democracy, the rule of law, respect for private property, freedom of speech—values generally considered to have emerged from the European Enlightenment. Before that, for most of the first 1,800 years since the birth of Christ, China and India represented the most important economic entities in the world. Now they are set to re-emerge on the world scene and we have got to ensure that this re-emergence is accommodated in a fashion that preserves the values we have created—and also preserves the global environment. We don’t want India or China meeting their energy needs in ways that cause a greater crisis of global warming than the one we know we’re going to have anyway. A century ago, the emergence of Japan and of Germany weren’t accommodated adequately and it resulted in two World Wars. We must learn from that experience.

We can manage the transition, but only by working together, multilaterally, intelligently and far-sightedly to understand the way other people see the world and not just the way we see it ourselves. I think the biggest danger that we face—and it’s pervasive —is the danger of only seeing the world through our own eyes. It’s a problem that afflicts Europeans just as much as it afflicts Americans. There is a tendency to assume that people should have our values because ours are the only worthwhile values to have, that people should see their future exactly as we see our future, because that’s the only way to see the future. I think we have to make this huge effort of the imagination to try to see the world through the eyes of an Indian peasant, or through the eyes of a member of the People’s Liberation Army in China. What do they see, what threats do they see, what worries do they have, how can we accommodate their view of the world with our view of the world? As we are the two entities that have in recent times enjoyed the most prosperity, it is we who have the greater responsibility to resolve that problem.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.