US seeks partners among MEPs

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Brussels


It's a two-minute drive from the US embassy in Brussels to the European Parliament. Which is just as well, since the new US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, intends to spend a lot of time there.

"Parliament is one of the priorities in the next six months," he told me.

image copyrightPic: US Mission to EU
image captionAmbassador Gardner has strong family links to Europe

Mr Gardner loves Europe. His mother's Italian, his wife Spanish, his father worked on the continent for years. He's fluent in French, Italian and Spanish and also speaks German. "I believe in the European project," he says.

Americans with a love of Europe are far from unusual. Americans with a deep knowledge of how the EU works are. In fact most Europeans do not have the kind of understanding Ambassador Gardner appears to have. Which is why his comments to journalists recently in Brussels are worth reading.

One of the first things he said - after telling us about the importance of a trade deal being negotiated between the US and EU right now - was that he would spend a lot of time with MEPs. Why? Well, their powers expanded when the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009.

Parliament's new muscle

For Washington, the European Parliament is becoming more like the US Congress. It is more deeply involved in decision-making. It can alter or even stop legislation that the governments of EU member states want to push through. In short, no one will achieve their political ambitions in the EU if they don't deal with the parliament.

So why specifically spend a lot of time there in the coming six months? Well, that trade deal. TTIP, as it is known, could create the world's largest trading bloc. The US and Brussels have been negotiating it for months. But some MEPs - especially those from the second-biggest group in the parliament, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) - say they are unhappy with some of the detail.

Five years ago that wouldn't have mattered, but the Lisbon Treaty gave MEPs the final "yes" or "no" vote on trade deals. Whatever the US and the 28 EU countries agree to, whatever trade deal text they produce, could be torn up by the European Parliament.

It's just one example of how a deal that would have a major impact on the life of every person living in the EU will be given the go-ahead depending on whether MEPs support it. And of course who is in the European Parliament depends on how the people of the EU vote in late May.