Published: January 27 2005
Trying to explain the European Union to outsiders - or insiders, for that matter - sometimes feels like trying to describe an elephant to a man from Mars. You can describe what it looks like, but it is still well nigh impossible to demonstrate how it works, or quite what it is for.
Part of the problem is that the EU is a hybrid creature. It is neither an intergovernmental organisation, nor a federal superstate. It assumes the right to talk with one voice on many issues, like a nation state, while simultaneously talking with the many voices of its 25 member states. Its executive authority is divided, between the European Commission and the Council of Ministers, as is its legislative function, between the Council and the European parliament. It is all most confusing.
The trouble is that the EU does not fit any textbook patterns, or political scientists' paradigms. It is unique.
That has always been the challenge for American administrations in dealing with the Union: they do not know how much attention to pay the EU institutions, and how much the member states themselves. The inclination is always to deal with the latter, and stick to bilateral relations. In turn that leads to the temptation of trying to divide and rule, much to the irritation of EU states.
When George W. Bush, US president, and Condoleezza Rice, his new secretary of state, come to Brussels in February, that confusion is going to be part of their problem. They will find it easier to talk in the intergovernmental setting of Nato rather than in the strange world of the EU. But their stated aim is to repair the transatlantic relationship, which all now admit has been badly damaged by the divisions over Iraq, and US hostility to multilateral arrangements, such as the Kyoto treaty on global warming. In those terms Nato matters, but the EU matters far more.
But there is a second level of confusion in the way Washington looks at Europe, one that is more political and less institutional. For years US administrations, like other English-speaking governments around the world, have tended to look at the EU through a distorting prism. More often than not, they have looked at Europe through British eyes.
It is certainly not just a problem for America. It is true for countries such as India and Australia, too, and indeed for many governments in Asia and Africa, although it is not so much a problem for Spanish-speaking Latin America. It is simply a reflection of the accessibility of the English language, the easy availability of the British media and familiarity with the British political debate.
The trouble is that the UK is not at the heart of the European discussion. It is frequently not in the mainstream of European thinking but rather the odd one out, whether as a non-member of the eurozone or as an outsider in the Schengen border-free area. Indeed, the debate in the UK is still raging over whether the country should be in or out of the EU, instead of focusing on how the Union should best function.
When the euro was launched, with the UK sulking on the outside in scepticism, many non-European countries were taken aback. Given the tone of the British debate, they were surprised the currency ever got off the ground, let alone prospered. But it worked remarkably well.
The same is true today in the debate over the European constitutional treaty. Britain is by far the member state most sceptical about approving the treaty, even though it has British fingerprints all over it. There is a very real chance that the UK will be the only member to fail to ratify the document. So the British debate is a bad guide to the political equation through the rest of the EU.
As far as Mr Bush is concerned, the continuing loyal Atlanticism demonstrated by Tony Blair in supporting the invasion of Iraq is also a bad yardstick by which to judge the rest of the EU. The US president knows the 25 members were badly split on the issue, but he also needs to realise that allies such as Mr Blair, and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, plus a few of the new member states, are not representative of the mainstream of European thinking. Hostility to the Iraqi adventure was the default position.
Of course the US and other governments do not pay attention exclusively to British views when weighing up the politics of Europe. They are far more sophisticated than that. But UK views get disproportionate attention on the airwaves and in the press, and thus in the political chatter.
The British government is not permanently out of step with its fellow EU members, either. On questions such as the Middle East peace process and the Kyoto treaty, on seeking a diplomatic settlement with Iran over its nuclear ambitions or lifting the arms embargo on China, Britain's views are much more representative.
There is always a temptation to pay most attention to those who say what you want to hear. No doubt Mr Bush likes talking to Mr Blair much more than to Gerhard Schröder or Jacques Chirac. They all want to restore the relative harmony in transatlantic relations. But whereas Mr Blair might be satisfied with an improvement in style, as demonstrated by the fact of Mr Bush's visit, not its content, both French and German leaders are going to be concerned about substance.
If Mr Bush really wants to have a genuine dialogue with the EU, he would be well advised to pay less attention to the British and more to their continental partners.