Arriving in the midst of Washington's biggest snowstorm in a century, the opening of a European Parliament's Liaison Office (EPLO), in January 2010, unsurprisingly was a low-key affair. But the establishment of Parliament's first, and to date only, representation outside the EU was an important milestone. It was timely too, sandwiched between the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, which gave MEPs the power to veto international treaties, and their decision to exert that power just two months later when they rejected the EU-US SWIFT agreement on sharing bank record data to track terrorists. Four years on, how is the EP viewed around Washington?

"It depends on who you talk to," says Andrew Fishbein, programme officer at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the US. There is "a good understanding" of how Parliament works in Congress, largely due to the educational outreach efforts of bodies like EPLO, the GMF, the Atlantic Council and German political party foundations, he notes. But "the average person in Washington has no idea that Parliament has a presence here" because "it is not important in domestic politics," he adds. A political reporter who works for a US media outlet says that while Parliament's outreach efforts are apparent, the general feeling among most Washingtonians remains that MEPs play a minimal role in EU decision making. The perception is that it is the Commission and the European Central Bank that are the big hitters on trade and monetary policy and that the member states ultimately call the shots, the reporter says. In the euro crisis, Obama called Merkel, not European Parliament committee chairs, he adds.

Antoine Ripoll, who heads EPLO's roughly dozen-strong staff, admits that "too often Americans still play the game of the member states" but that "this is changing". For instance, a recent visit by MEPs from the Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE) to learn more about the NSA's mass spying programmes underscored how the EP intends to link its approval of an EU-US free trade pact with a tightening of data privacy norms. Ripoll adds that Parliament and Congress are becoming more specific in the policy areas where they cooperate...

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