European Affairs

Letter to the Editor: Don't Forget the Other Cogs in the Machine     Print

Bertrand Collomb's article as EU Chair of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue in the spring 2000 edition of European Affairs clearly illustrates how a constructive dialogue can be conducted between Europe and America. Having had the good fortune to represent a binational business group as an observer at the TABD's Rome and Berlin meetings, I have closely followed that body as it has become an essential economic element of the diplomatic-strategic-economic triad of U.S.-EU relations.

The TABD's secret weapon - not very secret - is the fact that its creators meant what they said when they described an institution that would bring highest-level business executives such as Mr. Collomb into close and intense discussion with their opposite numbers on the "other side of the pond," and with U.S. cabinet secretaries and powerful members of the European Commission. TABD meetings at this level are remarkable for their candor, absence of point-scoring even when important interests are at stake, and a no-nonsense pragmatic approach to problems that diplomats and trade experts otherwise might happily debate for years without result.

Mr. Collomb gave several good examples of this practical cooperation that has achieved real results. Perhaps as a "big boss" whose hands-on personal involvement is so important to the TABD's success he may be forgiven for overlooking another vital cog in the TABD machine. The TABD has become a world-class diplomatic institution, which like many others does its painstaking preparatory work on virtually a year-round basis.

While the personal engagement of CEOs is vital, the hard day-to-day negotiations within the U.S. and EU business communities, and between those communities and their respective authorities, are conducted by superb cadres of career trade policy executives and experts ("issue managers" in TABD jargon) based in the much-maligned business communities in Washington, Brussels and elsewhere. They liaise with, but do not take instructions from, equally outstanding career civil servants in the various ministries in Washington, Brussels and other capitals.

The fact that the business communities actually intended to set the agendas and to speak for themselves apparently was an unwelcome surprise in some European ministries and Commission offices during the TABD's early days. Nor were all EU business interests "up-to-speed" at once. At the first TABD conference, in Seville in January 1996, the U.S. side was better prepared and this gave rise to European complaints about U.S. governmental "hidden hand" tactics.

But at that first meeting, the European side faced a U.S. business community and its CEO leaders who had done only what they always do - prepare in-depth and form good coalitions before talking with "the Feds." But Europe quickly caught up, and the result has been an outstanding organization, led at the top by heads of enterprises working closely with the highest level political representatives and supported by "major-league" issue managers and other negotiators.

It may not be insignificant that since its inception, only one TABD "issue manager" has been an outside lawyer, and that individual has deep experience in multinational industry as well as law practice, in both Brussels and Washington. The TABD operates as "enterprise talking with enterprise," with public authorities helping but not instructing. Going from strength to strength, the TABD's preparatory meeting in Brussels this May proved to be a good forum for some serious exchanges of views on the now-famous Foreign Sales Corporation and the WTO; if it is not settled by then, the FSC issue will be taken up at the TABD's November meeting in Cincinnati.

Terence Murphy
Washington, DC


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number III in the Summer of 2000.