In his State of the Union address, President Obama confirmed the support of his administration for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), aka the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement, between the U.S. and Europe. For those who believe that there is no alternative to the transatlantic relationship, this is the long-awaited signal. There is much euphoria on both sides of the Atlantic. Optimism is warranted, but euphoria is not. The hard work begins now. The challenges ahead are formidable. The two sides will have to agree on issues that have divided them for decades. Parochial interests will have to be put aside. Theological warfare will have to give way to religious tolerance.
In this process, personalities as well as very diverse institutions of the European Union and the United States will play a role. It has been said (and it must be said again) that the two sides will soon discover how little they know about each other. In Europe there is little understanding of how the different branches and institutions of American power interact. In this the understanding of Congress is especially important. We see a huge deficit in the understanding of both the formal and informal processes. The personal relationships that depend on experience, friendship and empathy, and the ability to network and build alliances, will be key.
I have been dealing with the U.S. government for more than 25 years. It took me forever to understand the complicated relationship between the president's administration and Congress, and the intricate clockwork of Washington, where every little screw, cogwheel or spring has an important role to play. And I am still learning every day. A subtle message to my European colleagues: How difficult it is.
The latest fad on U.S. television is online video service Netflix's own production of the American remake of House of Cards. (It's not available yet in Europe.) I must confess that I have not yet seen the whole series, as cognoscenti call it heresy to watch more than one episode a night. Still, I dare to suggest that it's probably the best political series I have ever seen. Perhaps it's the times we live in, or perhaps it's Kevin Spacey. He has always been one of my favorite actors and does an amazing job portraying "evil" congressman Frank Underwood. It's truly fascinating. Of course, it's just fiction, right? Bad politicians like him don't exist, do they?
It is fun to recognize the familiar streets, the buildings and the corridors where my workday as a Washingtonian diplomat played out. However, the true joy lies in recognizing the workings of the system, and the characters: president and veep, senators and members of the House, speakers and whips and the rest. It's a credible and smart explanation of the importance of staffers and aids, secretaries and drivers. It is good education in the art of figuring out how to recognize real influence and real power. It's good schooling in the complicated relationship between Washington politics and the media. House of Cards shows the clockwork in motion, as it should, with great precision.
In the U.S. capital, you can spend your time at meetings 24/7 and see that at the end of the day, like Sisyphus, you are back at square one, having made no progress in furthering your objectives or getting closer to your goals, or you can work the same hours and have the good feeling that you have made progress or at least opened new avenues that will bring you closer to success. What's the secret to the latter? It is understanding the system, and that is exactly why House of Cards should be watched (and enjoyed) and analyzed in Brussels and in capitals throughout the EU in preparation of the difficult talks ahead of us, because although it is fiction, it gives the perfect guide to Washington power, the understanding of which will be key to the success of the FTA negotiations.
In return, I hope there is a director in Brussels making a TV series about a member of the European Parliament who is passed over for the job of EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs (the full title is way too long) by the President of the Council and the President of the Commission (two presidents?!), so that Americans can chew their nails in suspense while getting immersed in the amazingly complicated institutional arrangements, the infighting, the delicate relationship between the European Parliament (the legislative branch) and the Commission (the executive branch) and the rest. I hope that the director adds a little spice by revealing a plot where 27 heads of state and government all introduce their own candidate.
It will be fun. In the meanwhile I can't wait to watch the next episode of House of Cards, strictly one at a time. I hope there is a happy ending!
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