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Washington spent years despising Ted Cruz. Now, Brussels and the EU believe they have reason to be angry, too.
Cruz, the combative Republican senator from Texas, has made a high-profile spectacle of his pledge to slow-walk President Joe Biden’s national security and diplomatic nominees. And that has led numerous EU officials and diplomats to view him as primarily responsible for the absence of U.S. ambassadors to the EU, France and NATO — vacancies that EU officials and diplomats believe contributed to a breakdown in communication over a new strategic alliance between the U.S., U.K., and Australia in the Indo-Pacific.
Technically, that’s not quite right — at least not yet. Those nominations haven’t cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so Cruz has yet to formally throw up roadblocks. But he has shown no signs of backing down from his vow, which stems from his bid to pressure Biden to impose mandatory sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a Russian-German project the U.S. has long opposed.
But that doesn’t mean the EU’s fury at him is misplaced; it’s just a bit premature.
“Cruz is blocking everything,” an exasperated senior EU diplomat complained, adding an expletive more common in Houston than in Lisbon or Lyon.
Cruz has been holding up the president’s nominees since March by deploying procedural maneuvers to force unprecedented delays, drawing complaints from Biden’s State Department. Just one ambassador, the envoy to Mexico, has been confirmed by the Senate since Biden took office.
The blockade means it could be months before the U.S. sends Senate-approved ambassadors to Brussels, Paris and an array of other European capitals, as well as to major international organizations like NATO, or the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation — leaving holes that EU diplomats and officials say are already having a clear, negative impact on their efforts to work with Washington.
Biden’s announcement of the Indo-Pacific partnership, known as AUKUS, blindsided French President Emmanuel Macron and set off an angry diplomatic feud between the U.S. and its oldest military ally — a fight that took days to smooth over. It remains a subject of lingering bitterness that hangs over U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Paris this week.
One senior EU official said Cruz and his issues were the White House’s problem, but that the vacancies were a serious concern for Brussels.
“I don’t think it’s for us to get into the particular details that are holding things up. That’s for the States to address,” the official said. “But if you look at the number of ambassadors that have come through compared to Trump, let alone compared to Obama, you have got a fraction of ambassadors and you have vacancies in a huge number of important positions.”
The senior EU official said there was no question that the diplomatic vacancies were problematic.
“On this AUKUS thing,” the official argued, “I don’t think the policy choice would have been different, but I do think the outreach and communication to partners would have been slightly different.”
“This ambassadors thing is playing a role and it needs to be sorted,” the official added.
But sorting it will not be easy, nor quick.
While it is common for the Senate to fast-track confirmation votes for non-controversial nominees who would otherwise easily win confirmation, that process requires the consent of all 100 senators, and Cruz has consistently objected. That effectively puts the nominations on the backburner while the Senate uses precious legislative days on other pressing matters.
Until now, Cruz was known only vaguely in Europe, chiefly for his clashes with Donald Trump during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Now, he is becoming infamous as the senator with an ax to grind.
Cruz, however, has never had much compunction about being hated by members of his own party, let alone by Democrats. And in a brief interview, he expressed no worry about any plummeting approval ratings in EU capitals. By pressuring Biden on the Nord Stream 2 project, Cruz insisted that he was defending the interests of Eastern European countries — and most U.S. lawmakers — that view the pipeline as a strategic and economic giveaway to Russia.
“If you want to talk to some Europeans about this, give the Ukrainians a call. Give the Poles a call. Give our friends in Eastern Europe a call,” Cruz said.
Cruz suggested that his critics were buying into a White House narrative about Republican obstruction. But it is also a narrative of his own making — one that puts him in the spotlight as a chief antagonist of the Democratic administration. And he is not alone in seeking that role.
In recent weeks, Cruz has been joined in his blockade by Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, who threatened to stall all of Biden’s Defense and State Department nominees unless the president’s national security brass resigns over the messy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
“If our European allies want to be really concerned, they ought to be concerned with what happened in Afghanistan — by the way, they are — and about the total crisis in American foreign policy leadership,” Hawley said in a brief interview.
Publicly, GOP lawmakers have provided cover for the duo with their reluctance to weigh in on the blockade, which has caused them to spend unnecessary extra hours and days in Washington taking roll-call votes.
So far, GOP senators say, there’s no pressure campaign underway to convince Cruz to back off, according to Republican senators. Cruz has negotiated with the Biden administration in the past to lift certain holds on State Department nominees, but nobody is under the impression that Cruz is malleable.
“That’s one of the few leverage tactics that senators have available to pressure an administration,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a top Foreign Relations Committee member, said of Cruz’s moves. “And there are a handful of issues in the world that I would resort to the exact same thing if they did it to me.”
Aiming to plow through the blockade, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, kept the Senate in session later than usual last week in order to finish approving some of the nominees Cruz had halted — including the State Department’s European affairs chief.
Even after eating up that valuable floor time, dozens of nominees are still languishing in the hyper-partisan Senate.
“We would not be here under normal circumstances, but we are here because one member of the Senate has determined to impede the entire national security infrastructure,” an exasperated Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said during one particularly late night.
Some Democrats have privately griped that Biden should have rolled out his foreign policy nominations earlier in his presidency to avoid the sort of calamity that resulted from the AUKUS announcement. But they’re slamming Cruz for using it as leverage in his fight to cripple Nord Stream 2, which is set to be a boon to Moscow at the expense of U.S. allies like Ukraine.
Many EU diplomats were reluctant to comment publicly about Cruz or Hawley for fear of encouraging them to dig in their heels deeper, or of exacerbating tensions with Washington.
“I think everything that had to be said about AUKUS was said,” said one European Commission spokeswoman, Dana Spinant. “We expressed our position clearly regarding how we would wish we were informed, consulted. We expressed it in very clear and very frank words in relation to our U.S. partners.”
Spinant said the confirmation process was an internal matter.
“The nomination of ambassadors is in the hands of our partner governments, and yes, we look forward to having also a partner in Brussels in the name of an ambassador,” she said. “But in the meantime, contacts are ongoing with the U.S. at various levels to discuss the very many matters which are of a joint interest for us.”
The Foreign Relations Committee held confirmation hearings last month for several of Biden’s most crucial nominees, including Denise Campbell Bauer to be ambassador to France; Julianne Smith to be ambassador to NATO; Mark Gitenstein to be ambassador to the EU; and Jack Markell to be ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
For the Europeans, the empty posts are particularly frustrating given that they have been looking forward to rebuilding transatlantic relations with Biden and his team.
In addition to contributing to the controversy over AUKUS, the vacancies have made it more difficult for the EU and U.S. to cooperate on a range of issues, including efforts to establish a new minimum corporate tax and initiatives to fight climate change, as well as to address disputes left over from the Trump presidency, including lingering tariffs on steel and aluminum.
The gaps were particularly noticeable last week as U.S. and EU officials convened in Pittsburgh for the first meeting of a new trade and technology council. Several officials said there was no doubt that having envoys in Paris and Brussels would have helped prevent, or at least mitigated, damage from Biden’s Indo-Pacific announcement.
Having ambassadors in place, a senior EU diplomat said, “always helps.”
Lili Bayer contributed reporting.