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Biden in Brussels

May 5, 2010

In what the White House has billed a major address, US Vice President Biden will speak at the European Parliament on Thursday. Members of parliament hope that he will reaffirm US-EU ties - and patch up a few things.

Vice President Joe Biden
The expectations are high for Joe Biden's speech in BrusselsImage: AP

Members of the European Parliament should highlight February 11, 2010 in their calendars. It was on that Thursday a couple of months ago that they and their institution for the first time appeared in earnest on the radar of most US politicians. Prior to that day and their overwhelming, cross-party rejection of the transfer of financial data to the US under the so-called SWIFT agreement, the European Parliament and its work went largely unnoticed in Washington.

The SWIFT veto that has left EU and US officials scrambling since then for a replacement agreement served as a wake-up call that a new player with real power had emerged on Europe's political landscape.

That's certainly true, says Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament delegation with the US and a leading member of the European People's Party.

He adds that Washington has realized that the legislature doesn't only have overall codecison powers, but also that parliament has to ratify all third country agreements and treaties of the EU. The message was that in effect, says Brok, "nothing can be decided at the end of the day against the will of the European Parliament."

Unusual business

Joe Biden's speech before the European Parliament therefore should also be viewed against the backdrop of the body's newly asserted role.

"It is indeed not everyday business that the vice president of the United States would visit the European Parliament and in a way I think the Obama administration is paying tribute to the newly enhanced role of the parliament," says Reinhard Buetikofer, a member of the delegation with the US and vice-chair of the Greens in the European Parliament.

Swift logo
The European Parliament's veto of the Swift agreement put it on the map in WashingtonImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

What's more, argue Brok and Buetikofer, Biden's Brussel's speech can serve as an important signal of cooperation between the US and the EU after President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his participation in the upcoming bilateral summit in Madrid caused some consternation in Europe.

Buetikofer also hopes that Biden, a former senator with vast experience in foreign relations, will set the record straight on Europe's contribution to international security.

Refering to a speech US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave earlier this year in Paris, Buetikofer says he was surprised that Clinton didn't mention Europe's common foreign and security policy at all.

"So people have wondered, including myself, whether the European contribution to Europe's security, the European engagement in missions like Atalanta (the EU's anti-piracy operation off the coast of Somalia - ed.), are at all on the screen in Washington."

So while Biden could clearly patch up a few things in European-American affairs, relations between the European Parliament and its US counterpart are on a good track since the SWIFT vote.

Reinvigorate transatlantic dialogue

"When we spoke to members of congress in March they explained that the speaker of the house, Nancy Pelosi, had decided to upgrade the status of the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue (TLD) within Congress," says Buetikofer.

The TLD is a long-standing debate forum for European and US parlamentarians that has effectively been in a deep slumber since its inception - mostly due to a lack of interest from the American side.

Now, says Brok, is the time to wake it up.

"We have to strengthen the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue. We have to work on that in the future and have closer relationships with committees and rapporteurs concerned in order to avoid that we legislate in the US Congress or in the European parliament in a way that goes in different directions which would be unhelpful for both sides."

Nancy Pelosi before US flags
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports stronger ties to European legislatorsImage: AP

While the House of Representatives under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi has already understood the importance of closer cooperation with European parliamentarians, the US Senate is still more reluctant, say Brok and Buetikofer.

Both EU parliamentarians emphasize that striving for closer ties with the US doesn't negate reaching out to other countries as well.

"However we do see a clear agenda with regard to the transatlantic relationship and it needs some attention," says Buetikofer. "We shouldn't let that slip away, just because we believe that Asia is coming up strong and that we should also pay attention to that. I think the parliament has the power and the vision to do both."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge