European Affairs

Perspectives: THE CHANGING NATURE OF THE TRANSATLANTIC DIALOGUE—Time to Reassess and Revive     Print Email

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Since the end of the Clinton Administration in 2000, the relationship between the European Union and the United States has significantly changed. Indeed, the very nature of the “dialogue” itself has been altered.

Under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, there was a natural evolution towards a regular and systematic dialogue, the rhythm of which was set by two Transatlantic summits a year providing the opportunity to establish lists of goals, deemed important by both sides, in many different domains where the objective was to establish information exchanges and to harmonize the decisions to be taken by each side, and together.

Starting with the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration, this dialogue, although formally maintained, was progressively emptied of its original purpose.

This unfortunate turn of events was in part prompted involuntarily when the first US-EU Summit gathered with the new U.S. President in Göteborg, Sweden, in June 2001. Facing 27 heads of governments and a long roster of European leaders, each pressing for a chance to say something, even briefly, probably discouraged the new American leader-- too loaded with serious responsibilities and little time for what seemed like formalities. He was unfamiliar with the intricacies of intra-European politics, and he had declared upfront during his campaign that even though he was not very experienced in foreign policy he knew that “large countries” would be his main interlocutors. The Europeans were not, apparently, in that lot.

The United States unilateral push for the war in Iraq did not only divide the Atlantic Alliance between the European countries agreeing to enter into war and those refusing to. It caused serious rifts between European nations themselves. As a result, the Transatlantic dialogue became more difficult and strained. President Obama’s election in 2008 revived European hopes, but it did not take long before the new President, not very familiar with the formal complexity of European political procedures,  showed signs of  impatience with non-substantive “formalities.” As a result he did not join his European colleagues at the 2010 Madrid Summit, noting that he did not expect much to come from this meeting while he was busy elsewhere. In doing so, he gave the Europeans a most useful signal that deliverables were a necessity for effective summitry, and that, despite Europe’s newly enacted Treaty of Lisbon, the Union’s leadership remained too opaque.

As imperfect as the new governance system proposed by this treaty may be, and as minimalist as its interpretation is (particularly in the way European leaders are chosen by the heads of governments who try to avoid strong personalities), it still has improved the representation of the European Union beyond its borders. Unfortunately the euro crisis starkly exposed the distinctions between the Eurogroup, which depends heavily upon the Germano-French dialogue, and those members of the European Union who do not belong to the euro zone and refuse a number of its components. It is a dynamic quite different from that of Russian nested dolls, since the various components do not easily fit with each other.

This evolution happens at a moment when the United-States is becoming the home of new cultures.  Even today, the majority of children born in the U.S. are not European American. In less than 20 years, the majority of American students will be African, Hispanic or Asian.  A growing number of influential political leaders have a vision that is not primarily focused on Europe, as President Obama’s “global approach” demonstrates.

On top of all this, the economic and monetary crisis has placed European and American leaders more and more facing across from each other rather than side by side. The 2007 financial crisis came from the U.S. via the “subprime” crisis which obliged a number of European States to increase their debt in order to help their economies and their banking systems face the situation. Following this crisis  market speculation, much of it of Anglo-Saxon origin, focused on the weakest of the European Member States, particularly Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and  Ireland. It took some time for the Europeans to realize the damage that the American financial debacle had caused beyond U.S. borders. European leaders finally analyzed the situation correctly in the second part of 2011, and moved aggressively to address the situation. It had become clear that parallel to market speculation on Wall Street, the US government took the liberty of blaming Europe for some of the economic, monetary and financial problems that the American public was feeling. It was certainly easier to blame the Europeans for lack of organization and unfinished business with the euro than to recognize one’s own turpitudes. It is only after the G20 meeting in Cannes in December 2011, that Barack Obama and Tim Geithner, the US Secretary of the Treasury, realized under the influence of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, that any damage done to the European economy, involuntarily or not, might boomerang on the American economy.  Views on either side of the Atlantic on the need for financial regulation were not the same. Barack Obama jumped on the opportunity to support François Hollande, the new socialist President of France, when he asked for growth policies that did not inspire much confidence from Chancellor Merkel and more generally in Germany.

The French electoral episode served the useful purpose of balancing the Transatlantic vision of the economy by injecting a dose of encouragement to the idea of growth in the midst of current austerity policies. This, however, has not been sufficient yet for the Transatlantic Dialogue to recover an effective focus on deliverables and a strong and mutually shared ambition of purpose.

The new talk is about a possible free trade agreement between the U.S. and the EU. But as much as it would be beneficial, the consummation of such a project would have to overcome the reality of ongoing “stealth-protectionism” on both sides. (Protection through all sorts of technical means and norms, as long as it is not custom duties in order to be in accordance with the World Trade Organization). Just as the Europeans have different points of view regarding such a possible free trade agreement, Americans are also deeply divided, evidenced by the gridlock between the current Administration and the U.S. Congress In the meantime the EU and the U.S. limit themselves to periodically celebrating small limited agreements mostly on technical matters

On the international scene, the retreat from Afghanistan, without any possibility to declare even a symbolic victory, the question is raised about NATO. In the recent past, NATO has been operating so much outside its natural zone of responsibility to cover operations basically determined by the United States, that its relevance for Europe itself becomes doubtful.  (The European led operation in Libya being a noticeable exception.) Quid of European defense?

A last factor complicating the evolution of the Transatlantic dialogue should be mentioned. The growing importance of cultural and social issues in the dialogue makes it more difficult to reach compromise. It is easier to agree on pure economic, trade or technical questions, than on social and cultural differences that are based on different values and experiences. Take, for instance, the case of data protection. The raft of issues associated with protecting the privacy of information collected by governments and operators is of more concern to European elites than their American counterparts. For example, the U.S. government opposes a number of proposals under consideration by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) because the U.S. is not prepared to accept any kind of international control on its information system. It is easy to gauge the irritation of a number of Members of the European parliament, as well as allies in the developing world, mindful but often of  frustrated by their limited influence in such cases.

Should one conclude that the Transatlantic dialogue is condemned to fading? Absolutely not. As counterintuitive as it may be, this evolution and this situation reinforces the need for an improved dialogue for two reasons.

The first is the interdependence between the two regions: they are by far each other’s most important trade and investment partner, and their markets jointly represent 54 % of the world economy. Between 2000 and 2010, the US invested nine times more in the Netherlands than in China.

The second reason, perhaps even more important, is the accumulation of threats emerging against the West from all over the world. There is no way that they can be addressed effectively by the U.S. or Europe separately. Cooperation is a mutual necessity.

Whoever is the next President of the United States, there is a good chance that the powerful leaders of America will soon end up realizing that they have nothing to win from drifting away from Europe. And in fact that realization may already be occurring as the fascination with China begins to dull. And the Europeans have nothing to win either in not maintaining a close relationship with the U.S.

Perspectives is an occasional forum of The European Institute reflecting views on topical issues.