European Affairs

The first incumbent, Dr. Piotr Nowina-Konopka, has a very political background, having already worked as Director for the European Parliament’s relations with the national parliaments of the EU’s 27 member states. In an earlier role, this veteran of European integration politics -- who incidentally is Polish like the Parliament’s new president, Jerzy Buzek -- was an activist at the core of the Solidarity movement that led Poland’s revolt in the 1980s against Soviet domination and Communist rule. He was still moving into his newly created Washington offices when he took time to talk to European Affairs about the mission and meaning of his new mission. Amid all the EU changes brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, the ones pertaining to external relations are naturally a focus of international attention. A range of changes suggest the EU’s clear ambition to become a more formidable presence on the world stage. Reflecting this push, the longstanding EU delegations in Washington and other capitals that used to represent the European Commission are being re-crafted to represent the European Union and work for the new President of the European Council and the new High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton, who also is a vice-president of the European Commission. (In Washington, the first “EU ambassador,” João Vale de Almeida, is waiting to be confirmed: his appointment, after working directly for the two-term President of the European Commission, raised some eyebrows in Brussels when it was announced, but the man himself made a good impression in Washington when he attended the recent summit on nuclear safety.) As a new EU voice in Washington, Dr. Konopka appears intent on trying to help Americans understand the complex workings of the EU, especially amid the changes stemming from the Lisbon Treaty. In this category, none seem more significant than the gain in authority and power of the European Parliament as a key player within the EU. The set of new legislative powers conferred by the treaty – including over budget, agricultural policy, energy and immigration – are effectively placing the European Parliament on a quasi-equal footing with the Council, which consists of the EU member nations’ heads of state (and their cabinet ministers in their respective domains). Reflecting the new scope of its powers, the parliament has decided to move further in enhancing its institutional activities, which until now have consisted mainly of visits to foreign capitals or international trouble spots by delegations and committees of Euro-parliamentarians. As the head of the liaison office, Konopka is representing an EU institution that is increasingly confident and influential. Already the Parliament has been influential in transatlantic issues such as the limits of data privacy in US efforts to detect potential terrorists on airline flights. As part of his ultimately successful efforts to win more EU help and latitude on checking airline passengers’ identities, Michael Chertoff, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, personally visited the European Parliament for a searching question-and-answer session about the US position – an initiative that proved fruitful in getting a wider transatlantic consensus on the terms of security cooperation. Hoping to build on such initial steps in the international recognition of the European Parliament’s stature, Konopka plans to convey to his American interlocutors that in many respects – separation of powers, oversight of the Executive – the European Parliament is more akin to the U.S. Congress than it is to a parliament of a European state. He also expects his office to do more than simply represent the European Parliament and shepherd delegations of parliamentarians around Capitol Hill. Vital as that liaison work is, he wants the new office in Washington to contribute directly to strengthening transatlantic relations, which he views as vital and an outgrowth of profound Euro-American affinities. Specifically, he wants to create a strong working relationship on issues of common interest between the Congress and the European Parliament, and starting at the level of staffers, who do so much of the preparatory work and dialogue among stakeholders that comes into any parliamentary decision. As a pioneer for this Parliament-Congress initiative, Konopka will undoubtedly face an exciting but also daunting challenge. Furthermore, as the representative of the European Parliament, he will be arriving in a city with an already crowded European presence that numbers full-time the EU ambassador, his future diplomatic service and the ambassadors of the EU member states. While, in his own words, Konopka welcomes a certain division of power between the various EU representatives, it remains to be seen how well and effectively they will be all able to work together effectively.


European Parliament expanded in post-cold war era

The emergence of the European Parliament in Washington, unexpected as it may sound, is really hardly more surprising than the emergence of this body into a new powerful role as a fully-fledged partner with the Commission and the Council in the European Union structure. Its story reaches back to the origins of the EU, but it has gained momentum in recent decades – a period that Konopka personally experienced as the final stages of the cold war struggle that started in his native Poland. In the 1980s, as tensions rose between Moscow and its eastern European satellites, notably Poland, the local diocese assigned Konopka – then a young professor at Gdansk University and a devout Roman Catholic – to help the wife of Lech Walesa, the chairman of Solidarity, after he was arrested by the pro-Soviet government amid the imposition of martial law in late 1981. With her husband in prison, Danuta Walesa became a voice of the banned Solidarity movement, and Konopka, who spoke French and English fluently, was her interpreter in meetings with foreign journalists. When Lech Walesa was released from prison in November 1982, he asked Konopka to stay on as an aide and his spokesman. He thus became a part of Solidarity’s long struggle to first survive as an underground organization, and then to negotiate a settlement with the communist government. In an interview retracing the three ensuing decades, Konopka mentioned several times that even in his wildest dreams, he could never have anticipated the dramatic transformation that his country would undergo, and that he would somehow end up being positioned in Washington – the representative of the European Parliament in a transformed trans-Atlantic context. He still brings up the sense of resignation that existed in 1978 amongst opponents to the Polish communist regime. It was at that time that he became an assistant professor at Gdansk University, teaching about air, maritime and international transportation. Like many others in his generation, his Roman Catholic faith drove him towards political action, to push for more personal and collective freedoms in Poland, and to be part of a diocese committee that helped families with relatives imprisoned by the government. But, he did not expect any meaningful progress. The election of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, and the creation of Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc, were not yet realities; and it would take a twist of fate for him – the bond he eventually developed with his best-known fellow-citizen of Gdansk, Lech Walesa– to become a more involved actor in the prolonged struggle that would eventually topple communism in Poland. After the transition to democracy, Konopka naturally moved into public service, which included stints as Minister of State, as Secretary of State for European Affairs, and ten years as a member of the Polish parliament. It is during that period that he developed a strong passion and expertise for European integration, not only through his political career, but also through his role as an activist and educator. As the Vice-Rector of the College of Europe at its Warsaw/Natolin campus from 1999 to 2004 and the co-founder and President of the Polish Robert Schuman Foundation, he tirelessly promoted the European Union, its history and its values in educational outreach to schools, non-governmental organizations and other parts of civil society across Poland.

These two strands, the political work and the activism, came together during the bid to make Poland a member of the European Union. Be it as a Deputy Head Negotiator, or helping the yes campaign for the referendum in 2003, Konopka was acutely aware of what EU membership would mean for his country. He understood the deep historical significance of the step that would:

  • Mark the symbolic return to Europe for Poland
  • Profoundly cement the changes that had occurred since 1989, and
  • Create greater economic opportunities for the Polish youth.

Once Poland became an official member of the EU on May 1 2004, he joined the staff of the European Parliament. By 2006, under the encouragement of his close friend and mentor, Bronislaw Geremek -- the Polish historian and politician, and great believer in the idea of Europe and of its ties with the U.S. -- Konopka became the Parliament’s director for relations with the EU member states’ national parliaments.

Expanding outlook for Euro-Parliamentarians

As his own trajectory has shown, Konopka believes that it is better to be an idealist than a cynic. And the same could be said about the dramatic changes that have occurred to the European Parliament since its inception in the early 1950s. The founding fathers of Europe could never have dreamed that it would one day become such a key part of the process of European integration. Indeed, when it began in 1952 as the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, it amounted to little more, in the words of the English political scientist David Farrell, than “a multi-lingual talking shop.” The Assembly had no legislative powers and only included 78 members, drawn from the national parliaments of the member states. Yet, over the years, the Assembly, renamed European Parliament in 1962, slowly increased its powers and legitimacy. In 1979, for the first time, its members were directly elected instead of being appointed by governments, a big element in the EU’s claim to democratic representation for voters across the continent. With enlargement, the parliament has grown to 751 members selected (and 23 official languages). There is a rough left/right political division in the parliament, but its work and decisions are not yet the result of interaction between parties because there are not yet any EU-wide “parties” that run slates of candidates in European elections every five years. Moreover, the European Parliament first acquired certain budgetary powers in 1970, and continued to expand its remit of responsibilities ever since. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty introduced the so-called co-decision procedure – the Commission submits a legislative proposal to the Parliament and the Council, and both institutions need to approve the proposal for it to come into effect – for a certain number of fields. By the time the Lisbon Treaty came into force, this procedure has become, with a few exceptions, the norm for the EU, putting the Parliament, in effect, on an equal legislative par with the Council. At the same time, the Parliament also progressively acquired oversight powers over the Commission. It now has to approve the proposed candidate for President of the Commission, and can force suggested Commissioners to be withdrawn, just as it did in 2004 with Rocco Buttiglione (Justice, Freedom and Security) or more recently with Rumiana Jeleva (Disaster and Humanitarian Aid). Now the arrival of the European Parliament’s representative in Washington is another important step in this body’s ambitions to become a bigger and more influential player in transatlantic relations. It certainly comes at a crucial juncture as the EU and the U.S. grapple with new dimensions and explore new channels for their relations in the hope of seizing shared opportunities.

Garret Martin has been an Assistant Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University, specializing in International History, and is editor at large at European Affairs. His most recent article was a profile of Gordon Bajnai, Hungary’s prime minister from 2009 until spring 2010.