Coffee House

What the US really thinks about Europe (and why it might help push reform)

7 February 2014

10:00 AM

7 February 2014

10:00 AM

Whether it wants to or not, Washington has a role to play in the UK’s EU debate. Eurosceptics and Europhiles constantly wrangle over what the US position is on Brexit, splitting hairs interpreting State Department officials’ carefully worded remarks in order to claim victory for their side.

The latest episode in this running saga sees the sceptics feeling vindicated by Washington’s exasperation with the EU. Assistant Secretary of State (for European Affairs no less) Victoria Nuland appears to have landed herself in some rather hot water – both diplomatic and political. In a reportedly leaked phone call to the US ambassador to Ukraine, Nuland is heard unceremoniously blasting the EU and pushing the UN to take over in mediating the escalating crisis in Kiev.

‘F–k the EU’, she says, adding that what’s needed is ‘help [to] glue this thing and to have the UN glue it’.

Many have been quick to point out that this episode underscores the fact that the unofficial State Department line on Brussels is in practice quite different to the official position in principle, and on some levels this is is true.

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When Nuland’s predecessor Philip Gordon opined last January that ‘a strong British voice in the European Union’ was ‘in the American interest’, pro-EU campaigners claimed victory. Critics pointed out that Gordon had a track record of advocating European integration as an academic prior to his appointment, reflecting a more biased personal opinion than the official line from Washington.

The point is that the US does not understand nor is interested in how the EU works. The US attaches great significance in public to the EU’s ‘soft power’ in drawing Eastern European countries away from Russia’s orbit and triggering democratic reforms perceived as necessary to join an influential and very Western club. But when it comes down to business behind closed doors, Washington often grows impatient at the pace of negotiations with the EU on everything from trade to foreign policy.

The complex machinery of Brussels decision-making is well-known in Britain. To the Americans, it’s a mind-boggling juggernaut, stemming chiefly from a lack of understanding about issues of sovereignty and the reality of trying to shape common policies out of the politics of 28 different countries. Washington’s mindset is ‘just get it done’, and the concept of endless discussions between multiple EU institutions just to reach a consensus is something US officials struggle to get their heads around.

Though he has since disavowed himself of the now-infamous quip, Henry Kissinger said it all when he exasperatedly queried ‘who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?’. For all intensive purposes, there are many in Washington who – through no ideological purpose – approach the EU as a United States of Europe by default. And when things don’t work in the way they expect this would mean, a lot of head-scratching ensues.

Most Americans don’t understand that the European project isn’t the seamless machine they expect to operate, and they’ve little interest in finding out why. US Treasury officials have privately admitted their frustration that the eurozone’s banking union has become such a protracted and complex exercise with no end in sight. And in this instance, it is Germany’s stubborn resistance which is holding up progress, rather than Britain’s for once.

The answer does not simply lie in Europe getting its act together and becoming a carbon copy of the US federalist model. For one thing, this would require the EU to become the fiscal transfer union that Berlin will never allow. And the likelihood of Brussels developing a coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy remains a distant dream.

Instead, much as it always does, the US will have to work behind the scenes on a with individual countries to advance their collective interests. And Washington would do well to brush up on its history of European integration, so that its dealings with the bloc better reflect an understanding of what to expect and how to respond when the limits of integration are tested.

Will the US get to the point Britain is at now, where frustration means that it contemplates casting the EU aside as an integral partner? Doubtful. But it might take more of a sympathetic interest when the UK airs its grievances about the sclerosis that in spite of the best of intentions, Europe often finds itself in. It may just take the Americans telling Brussels to reform or face decline to get the ball rolling. Britain has been trying long enough.

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Show comments
  • A_Hutchinson

    all intents and purposes – not intensive purposes for goodness sake.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    More foreigners telling us what’s best for US!

  • Lady Magdalene

    “Whether it wants to or not, Washington has a role to play in the UK’s EU debate”
    The only role the USA has to play in the UK’s “EU debate” – which is about our Sovereignty and Democracy – is to butt out and STFU.

  • fubarroso

    Eurosceptics and Europhiles constantly wrangle over what the US position is on Brexit

    I don’t think that statement is true at all. Those of us on the side of an independent UK couldn’t give a toss what the US position is on Brexit.

    • Wessex Man

      Yes of course, I must say though that all UKip members who have ever spoken about the USA and us don’t give a toss either.

  • CHRISTOPHER WHITE

    The Euro crisis will drag on till PIGS leave. Perhaps France can’t share a currency with Germany. Greece has 27.8 % unemployment & the issue may not be addressed for YEARS. Just regarding EU as some normal kind of quasi-country is wrong. The ‘INTERNAL CONTRADICTIONS’ mean the South & perhaps every country has YEARS of problems ahead.

    • Wessex Man

      don’t shout – it is Saturday Morning!

  • Denis_Cooper

    The point is that the EU has been stirring up trouble in the Ukraine, whether on its own account or on behalf of the US or both is difficult to say.

    It may be noticed that many of the opponents of the government seen in the riots have adopted the EU emblem as their own badge.

    And some in the EU are proposing that the EU should immediately promise that the Ukraine will be allowed to join the EU:

    http://euobserver.com/foreign/122972

    “EU commissioner calls for Ukraine accession promise”

    Now I would have thought that it would be quite clear to all US diplomats that the accession of a new member state to the EU is quite a complicated and sometimes difficult business, and also that electorates in some of the existing member states might have had more than enough of new countries joining the EU and getting subsidies at their expense and all the citizens of those new member states getting free run of their own countries, and one or more of those electorates might wake up and act to stop Ukraine and any more similar countries joining the EU, so it is not something which is just in the gift of the EU Commission or for that matter even in the gift of the member state governments.

  • RavenRandom

    Yes I imagine Washington telling the EU to “reform or face decline” will finally put the EU to rights. It’s well known how much the French like to be told what to do by the Americans.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Yes ungrateful lot the French. They wouldn’t even have a country if it had not been liberated by the Americans, British, Canadians, Anzacs etc etc.

  • Denis_Cooper

    “The answer does not simply lie in Europe getting its act together and becoming a carbon copy of the US federalist model. For one thing, this would require the EU to become the fiscal transfer union that Berlin will never allow. And the likelihood of Brussels developing a coherent Common Foreign and Security Policy remains a distant dream.”

    Interesting paragraph, that.

    The answer does not “simply” lie in the establishment of a federal United States of Europe, and “Berlin” would not allow that – so does the author have any view on whether that would be desirable if the Germans changed their minds?

    And why is the development of a single EU foreign and security policy a “dream”, however distant? Whose “dream” would that be?

    • RavenRandom

      “And why is the development of a single EU foreign and security policy a “dream”, however distant? Whose “dream” would that be?” Napoleon’s, the Kaiser, Hitler’s, Stalin’s. All the good guys.

  • zanzamander

    Another thing to note is that there is no “special relationship” between us and the US. This exists only in the minds of those who poor fools who still want to cling on to Uncle Sam’s tailcoat. US has never given a flying fig for Europe and it is still fighting the Cold War with the Russians. Islamists know this full well and are playing one side off against the other, milking us for everything we’ve got in the process (Pakistan is a prime example of this). US sees the world from its Islamist lens and anyone who does not fall in line is trampled upon.

    If we had any sense, we’d give the bird to the US and forge ever closer ties with Russia, dismantle NATO and let Russia join the EU (not Turkey).

    US is falling apart in front of our eyes. What the Japanese couldn’t do with bombs has been done by Obama via the ballots in few short years. Leave US for the Islamic world, they’re well suited for each other.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      Russia doesn’t want to join the EU.

    • global city

      No. ‘Fuck the EU’

      How come you see the EU as ‘us’?

  • Robert Taggart

    To quote many an observation regarding these ‘warring’ factions…
    ‘America has no friends – only interests’.
    ‘Blighty has lost an empire and is struggling to find a role’
    ‘Europe – EU are what eu are’ !
    Solution to this conundrum ? – United Kingdom independence – if only to give Blighty that much sought after role – ‘Mid Atlantic Half Way House’ !

  • Doggie Roussel

    “F…k the EU”, says Ms Nuland on behalf of the USA…

    That’s great news to hear that the US has as lower an opinion about all those scumbags in Brussels as do 90% of the British electorate.

    • BarkingAtTreehuggers

      Doggie – judging solely based on your avatar, you are not old enough to hold such a bigotted opinion.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Says someone who choose(S) ‘Barking at Treehuggers’ as a pseudonym.

        • BarkingAtTreehuggers

          It appears you are a Colonel in fantasy land only. Strategic thinking appears not to be your forte. What part could you not agree with? The part which involves a larger United States of Europe causing issues for a US of A that is acknowledging its ever-decreasing influence? All we need to do is *want* to be part of the biggest club out there, then we are (!)
          90%? You must be out of your g.d. mind, son.

          • Colonel Mustard

            This is the ‘part’ I could not agree with:-

            “Doggie – judging solely based on your avatar, you are not old enough to hold such a bigoted opinion. Wa’ happen? Did mummy spoon-feed you tripe for breakfast?”

            Couldn’t see anything in that about strategy, the USA or 90%, so maybe not I who is in fantasy land, eh?

            • BarkingAtTreehuggers

              Pal, judging solely by your avatar you are a faceless bureaucrat or some peculiar form of blog police. You agree with 90% opposition. You must be out of your g.d. mind, son.

              • Colonel Mustard

                Er, I don’t have an avatar old chap.

              • global city

                judging by your avatar you are a tree that is going limp.

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          He got the ‘barking’ bit right Colonel.

      • Doggie Roussel

        My avatar should be of little concern to you; with your own resembling a rather unkempt merkin… any conclusions drawn must be left to the shrinks.

        As for my own, it is a copy of my student union’s mugshot… a couple of years back, I grant you, but probably a more realistic likeness than the bedraggled pubic wig that you have inflicted upon us…

        • BarkingAtTreehuggers

          Ey pal, if my tree had all colour on it I would be mistaken for a commie, or worse, some deputy speaker type. Not havin’ any of that.

      • global city

        Please, explain ‘bigoted’, in the context of a political construct?

        remember, the EU is a political entity, not a race or a religion. I guess that, seeing as you view America as the enemy you are quite bigoted yourself…. which is ironic.

        • BarkingAtTreehuggers

          I don’t. I explained elsewhere why and will not repeat it here.

          • Doggie Roussel

            Thicko !

  • Ron Todd

    How bad is the EU at getting something done if the UN is seen as a better alternative?

  • In2minds

    “The point is that the US does not understand nor is interested in how the EU works” –
    And it’s not just the EU that is beyond their grasp; mind you some say that our very own PM fails to understand the EU too!

  • Colonel Mustard

    I can sympathise with Ms Nuland’s feelings every time I see Barroso or Van Rompuy.

    • fubarroso

      Personally, I wouldn’t want to get at all intimate with them let alone do that!

  • DavidL

    The trouble is that the US prescription for the EU’s uselessness is to move towards a United States of Europe.

    • Makroon

      The US attitude to the EU is like the English attitude to Scotland – walk on eggshells and avoid stating your opinion, so as not to upset the prickly buggers.
      The US wants an EU that is a near-exact clone of the US. The one exception is that this USE, must offshore foreign and defence affairs (grown-up stuff) to the USA.

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