Unity vs. Ennui: The Life and Times of a Eurocrat

Julien Steimer has a frustrating job, but you’d never know it by his demeanor. Attendees of Thursday’s Timothy Dwight Master’s Tea, however, heard from TD’s Master Jeffrey Brenzel about the trials that come with working on policy in the bureaucracy-laden European Union. “It’s like what they say about a sausage factory,” Brenzel quipped. “Tastes okay, but you’d feel differently if you’d seen how they make it.”

Julien Steimer (Yale World Fellows)

Steimer (a current TD World Fellow), as chief deputy of the EU’s Agriculture ministry, may well have ruled on sausage policy at some point, though his stories concerned corn, wheat and asparagus. In a classic French accent, he confessed to being “TNF: Typical Nightmarish French”.

Brenzel: “Is that a British acronym?”
Steimer: “If it were only the British using it, I would be very happy…”

His mother—“a very bad cooker, but a very good feminist”—let Steimer take classes in the art of French cooking, but his work in agriculture was completely coincidental. When his boss, in a mysterious political decision, was shifted from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to food policy, Steimer accepted an offer to come along—in keeping with his philosophy of life, which involves accepting randomness and meeting as many different kinds of people as he can find.

But one mustn’t be many different kinds of people oneself. Steimer’s presentation was officially on the art of negotiation, and his first rule of negotiation is simply to “know who you are, both in your eyes and in the eyes of others who may see you as a cliché.” (TNF). In a blur of acronyms, he imparted snippets of wisdom, at every level of specificity, based on a series of defining words:

  1. Target: Every negotiation needs a clear goal. When he came into the department, at a time when volatile food prices had just cost French farmers half their income, Steimer raised awareness of their plight not by lecturing the rest of the EU on the science of agriculture, but by referring to farmers as the source of wonderful French food. Meanwhile, in France itself, he emphasized competitive strength—the EU lacked enough trade barriers to keep French farmers from having to compete with Germans and even Brazilians. By keeping his goals clear, Steimer convinced the G20 to adopt the 2011 Agricultural Action Plan, reducing price volatility by increasing transparency in commodity markets.
  2. Tenacity: This was perhaps Steimer’s most useful lesson. Even when one has great political power, just making a decision doesn’t guarantee anything will happen; even the loftiest official has to keep her nose to the ground and ensure people implement the policies she fought so hard to pass.
  3. Dialogue: When Steimer spoke of controlling volatility, other parties in the negotiation thought he meant a socialist-style price freeze, when all he intended was to promote transparency and give farmers more information. When such a difference in definitions persists, a lack of dialogue is at fault, and negotiations can get ugly, fast. Here, Steimer also revealed certain words practically “prohibited” in EU meetings—words like “borders,” “Turkey,” and “leadership”. With four Presidents, the EU suffers from a severe absence of the final term, and has, Steimer believes, since World War II.
  4. Diversity: A negotiator must always work to find common ground. “The best negotiation,” Steimer said, “is when nobody loses.”
  5. Coherence: Whether in the EU or U.S. of A, any political figure must ensure that his policies make sense at a local, national and global level while remaining the same no matter who’s hearing about them. Small-town farmers who hope to expand must build strategies around national farm policy; continental ministers must be able to explain in clear language why Russian oil prices and the weather in New Zealand impact French agriculture.

In a Q&A afterwards, Steimer told an audience of 30 that all the best negotiators he knew were able to accept and work with the essential differences between people and their positions—crucial when dealing with politicians bound by the laws of 27 different countries. He questioned the need for any other continent to form its own union, but insisted that Europe would fall apart without the EU, given its recent economic history and steadily aging population (among other factors sadly left unsaid). To Steimer, the EU’s greatest strength is the sheer amount of international conversation that goes on in its Brussels headquarters (which consists almost entirely of meeting rooms), and its greatest weaknesses its lack of leadership and inability to unify further. “Henry Kissinger once said that if he had a problem with Europe, he wouldn’t know who to call,” Steimer said. “And this is still true today.”

In the most interesting line of his presentation, Steimer let out some of his inevitable frustration, in this case with the majority of the French populace that fears losing national sovereignty if France integrates further into the EU. “Where is French sovereignty in the face of financial markets? Where is French sovereignty when we try to negotiate with China?” And without full EU economic unity, France has other problems: German farmers can pay agricultural workers much less and sell cheap crops around Europe, while Ireland gets French bailouts after luring away multinationals and jobs with their 0% corporate tax rate. Steimer might be biased in favor of his international body, but he presents a powerful case for giving Europe a single budget, a single military, and a single future, as bright as can reasonably be hoped for.

Aaron Gertler ’15 is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at aaron.gertler@yale.edu.