European Affairs

A good example is the deal she negotiated with President George Bush on climate change: it fell short of some people’s hopes, but it established a benchmark – basically, an agreement that the problem exists and that a closer consensus about it needs to be sought under the aegis of the United Nations. So if Berlin was unable to solve all the major problems on its watch and even had to sidestep some challenges, it provided leadership of a kind that has been missing in the EU since the constitution’s defeat two years ago.

There are grounds for optimism in the aftermath of the summits, especially the EU meeting in Brussels that put a new limited treaty on the rails. Berlin’s preference for eschewing grand rhetoric and symbolic goals and concentrating on achievable concrete results has paved the way for the EU to adopt a more effective decision-making machinery. The new system will not take effect right away, but should be fully in place by 2009. That will be the right time. That year the EU changes will be consolidated by European Parliament elections; the White House will have a new U.S. leader; and Russia will have an official successor to President Vladimir Putin. So the EU may meet this rendezvous with history, especially with three powerful (and comparatively young) leaders in place in Berlin, Paris and London. At this juncture, the stars may be in alignment for forward strides both in Europe and in the Transatlantic relationship.

What did the German presidency of the EU achieve? Even if the era is over of great breakthroughs such as Maastricht and the euro, the German presidency in its six months excelled in redefining objectives, setting work plans and timetables and designing frameworks for further negotiation. Besides working through issues on a treaty to replace the abortive European Constitution, Berlin forged a linkage between energy and climate policy. In working up to the EU summit, Berlin strode a politically sensitive line on all the procedural or formal questions and managed to stay focused on the politically feasible in the form of getting 27 leaders started down the road to a “limited treaty” – as Sarkozy first phrased it. Thanks to this approach and Merkel’s clear-sighted targeting and persuasive negotiating skills, the EU can throw off a recent image of near-paralysis. Merkel delivered on the essentials. By carefully looking after the interests of big and small member states alike, she engineered a detailed road map for a “reform treaty” that manages to preserve most of the constitution’s substance, but water it down enough to satisfy the “Euro-minimalists” in France, the UK and the Netherlands.

Expectations for the German presidency were high, but the result was always bound to be a compromise. One of the summit’s biggest hurdles was agreement on a new double-majority voting system. This agreement was only reached after a dramatic power struggle with Poland. Compromise was bought at a high price for the EU – and for Berlin: the new voting system will now take effect only in November 2014. Until then, the current system of voting in the European Council will continue to apply, even though it is very cumbersome now that there are 27 member states.

At the summit, Merkel remained tough on the issue, even presenting Warsaw with a surprise ultimatum that threatened to move ahead with the treaty without Poland. But Warsaw succeeded in obtaining the delay for maintaining its current level of influence in EU voting for this additional period. This delay in change can have a major impact on the further integration process, and the harsh process (including anti-German comments from Poland’s leader about World War II) did not help overcome the tensions between Poland and Germany. Post-summit comments from Poland added further fuel to what has become a bonfire between the two capitals. Polish leaders are being advised that they may wish to seek a more restrained tone and different diplomatic approach if they want to avoid inciting a negative effect in the still-cooperative public mood in Germany. A political dialogue to overcome current tensions between the two countries seems very important for the EU to capitalize on its new momentum toward further integration.

What are the other major results of the summit? Instead of a foreign minister, the EU will have a man who does the same job with a humbler title: a “high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.” In another compromise, the treaty avoids spelling out that EU law has primacy over national law, referring rather to “well-settled case law.” This amounts to a concession by Berlin, since clear delineation of competences ranked among the top German priorities. Despite such short-comings, the deal Merkel brokered is certainly a success, especially compared to the disarray that threatened any agreement before the summit.

Importantly, the EU seems set to operate more effectively in future vis-à-vis the United States, starting with the new administration in Washington in 2009. For the time being, American public opinion continues to be uninterested by inter-European developments. The crucial EU summit was not front-page news in the U.S. media; coverage was limited to a few stories in the inside pages of the leading dailies. As a side benefit, the more streamlined EU machinery in future may make Transatlantic deal-making more “readable” for the public in the United States (and perhaps in Europe, too).

The Brussels summit took place in a complex historical context. Key EU governments had lowered their ambitions for European integration. France and the Netherlands remained committed to their 2005 “no” to the constitution, and Poland, with its conservative government, joined Britain in openly opposing some aspects of the proposed new “simplified” constitutional treaty. The EU was split into a majority of countries that had ratified the now-shelved Constitution and a minority that had rejected it or suspended the process. The summit showed Merkel exerting the high degree of skill she has gained in office in handling foreign policy, leaving her the single most influential leader in Europe. Domestically, Merkel’s influence has been heightened: her “grand coalition” has an overwhelming parliamentary majority, and the German economy and export machine are humming again.

Diplomatically, her deliberate shifting of Germany back to its traditional middle ground between East and West had restored much-needed equilibrium to the Western alliance. Improving transatlantic relations was one foreign policy priority of Germany’s Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats since it took office. The underlying shared understanding in the German coalition is that the transatlantic relationship has global implications: today’s main challenges, in security and in soft power, can be tackled best in cooperation with the U.S. – a view that now even most Social Democrats do not question. This attitude is shared in London and Paris. At the same time, Merkel embeds German foreign policy into a European framework, especially with a view to dealing with Russia and other eastern partners in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP). Berlin, once again, sees itself as the region’s interlocutor at European level, representing the diverse interests of all member states (and especially the smaller ones) in talks with Russia – a change from the more exclusively bilateral policy towards Moscow under former Chancellor Schroeder.

At the EU summit, Berlin’s main goal was to salvage the essentials of the constitution by sacrificing some symbols, some over-ambitious goals and some taboo words. The outcome was, deliberately, a dull-looking, technical-sounding document that in practice could put through a more functional system for the newly enlarged 27-member EU.

What matters is that the treaty saves the most important institutional changes needed to make the EU more efficient in terms of decision-making. Crucial points include the extension of qualified-majority voting (even then, many areas will still require unanimity: tax harmonization, defense, and even the Common Foreign and Security Policy, migration, parts of commercial policy, future reductions in the number of Commissioners, any extension of the Commission President’s powers). In making this change, the most contentious issue was the plan to shift to a new “double majority” (requiring 55 percent of EU member states representing 65 percent of the EU population for a “majority”). This complex procedural question included a new calculation for the number of votes allocated to each member state in decisions by the European Council. Poland set out to be the spoiler, vehemently opposing the new voting formula because it would enhance German power to the detriment of smaller members, notably Poland and Spain. The adjustment seemed reasonable to most Europeans: Poland’s population only comprises about eight percent of the EU total of 490 million, compared to Germany’s 17 percent, yet Poland under the old (and still temporarily prevailing system) has had nearly as many votes as Germany. (Out of a total of 345 votes, Poland had – and retains until 2014 – 27 votes compared to the 29 each of Germany and the other largest countries.) The Nice Treaty, which allocated the old voting quotas, also established a threefold requirement for majority (states, population and weighted votes) that favored smaller and medium-sized states (such as Poland) in a way that ensured that the three biggest members had no blocking minority. Most EU member states agreed that this needed to be changed (with the new “double majority” voting formula) to facilitate majority voting in the expanded 27-member bloc. After the summit, the EU has a road map to this slightly-streamlined system.

On external affairs, during its presidency Germany sought to suggest the contours of the future borders of the EU while creating appropriate structures to cooperate more intensively with the non-members in the EU’s neighborhood. There is a general consensus in Berlin about the limitations of further enlargements, putting off Turkey but planning for Croatia and eventually the other countries in the western Balkans. It is understood that these limitations have to go hand in hand with the strengthening and broadening of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy initiated four years ago as a middle way between third-country relations and full membership. In emphasizing this approach during its EU presidency, Berlin was not putting forward a new ost politik or even a fully coherent strategy toward the region. It was seeking to make the point that the EU needs to be better prepared to address unforeseen challenges on its periphery in a more pro-active way than it did throughout the 1990s.

Looking westward, the EU may be set for better times with Washington going forward. The language between Merkel and the Bush administration has become much less confrontational. Alongside the modest initiative on climate change during the G8 summit, the U.S.-EU summit embraced the principle of Merkel’s vision of a common U.S.-European marketplace. A new Transatlantic Economic Dialogue was bolstered from the outset by the breakthrough on a long-contentious U.S.-EU open-skies agreement over airline landing rights. Since the economic initiative centers on an effort to scrap non-tariff barriers caused by different standards and regulations in capital markets on both sides of the Atlantic, it may win backing from Britain’s Brown. It is an area where his technical reflexes coincide with his Transatlantic reflexes. But in other areas, he may feel compelled to be less obvious than Blair in consistently lining up with Washington on foreign policy, especially climate change.

The same goes for Sarkozy. Despite being more of an Atlanticist than Chirac, he is unlikely to depart from the French tradition to be helpful in the world when it is helpful for the French. But he seems to want to make a mark in restoring French claims to a leading role in Europe and even farther afield. The Gaullist reflex is likely to persist with him in seeking to restrain the U.S. in some situations – although perhaps without the insulting rhetoric of the previous French government.

The emergence of this “troika” – based on their vision of Europe and a common recognition of U.S. importance that relies less on their bilateral ties with the U.S. – can moderate Transatlantic differences. Certainly it will make it more difficult (but not impossible) for Washington to divide Europeans (but not permanently). Both sides of the Atlantic are learning to moderate their differences when dealing with third countries. They are working closely together in places such as Afghanistan, Kosovo and Lebanon, with Washington being more willing to recognize the importance of soft power instruments, and the Europeans becoming more understanding of the need for hard power and military force in some situations. (Take the Germans: the deployment of 8,500 troops to Afghanistan and other combat zones remains a novel and controversial idea.) Of course, few Europeans would countenance military action against Iran; the U.S. just might. Yet the U.S. has supported the “EU Three” – again, Britain, France and Germany – in their diplomatic efforts to persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear-weapons ambitions. To maintain this united front, Washington may now have to go farther by offering Iran some carrots of potential engagement to accompany the sticks of UN sanctions.

Does that mean the U.S. and the EU have magically started to see the world alike? No one should think so. The two sides of the Atlantic may agree 80 percent on most issues, but the remaining 20 percent may cause trouble – and even a 100 percent rift in crises.

Look at the list of friction points in the transatlantic relationship.

The first challenge is likely to be Kosovo, where Washington expected the EU to become more involved this year. It wanted Berlin to use its presidency to define the modalities of the new job in Kosovo (to be held by a European) representing the international community’s authority and to get the EU prepared to respond to any outbreak of violence. Any EU lukewarmness to backing the plan for Kosovo’s “supervised independence,” as recommended by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, is liable to increase the chances of a Russian veto in the Security Council against the plan. Internal EU divisions (Spain, Slovakia and Greece have been reluctant to endorse independence, for their own separate national reasons) might encourage the Serbs to attempt a partition of Kosovo – with a great risk of violence. The German Presidency missed the chance to insist clearly that the future holds independence for Kosovo – and that this inevitable outcome, in turn, would help Belgrade move towards EU membership.

The U.S. certainly welcomes Germany’s intention to take a more strategic approach to its new neighbors, especially the Caucasus and Central Asia. But Washington is – wrongly – pushing the EU to favor change over stability. The EU is offering innovative tailored approaches to these countries that – at this stage – are far better than EU membership.

With regard to European attitudes toward Russia, Washington is pursuing its own interest-driven approach, seeking support on issue-by-issue basis while the EU remains split between those who seek to accommodate Russia and others who favor selective engagement. Both sides of the Atlantic see that Moscow may seek to exploit the Kosovo outcome as a precedent for seeking partition-style solutions favoring Moscow’s idea of its interests in the stalemated conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. Energy dependence on Russian gas (and oil) looms as the biggest European security problem with Moscow. It would be helpful if this issue would become a central plank of broad-ranging Transatlantic parliamentary discussions.

Certainly the most complicated issues involve the Middle East. Europeans (and most U.S. presidential candidates) know that the U.S. cannot simply walk away from Iraq. The U.S. should come around to the proposals of the Iraq Study group seeking regional diplomacy and pressing the Iraqi government to make progress. As the U.S. is seeking new approaches beyond simply adding more troops, the EU (as a whole) should offer support on a regional level – for example, getting the Quartet reengaged on the Arab-Israeli conflict and related disputes. (Blair’s appointment to represent the so-called Quartet – the U.S, Russia, the EU, and the UN – is a sign of this more active Transatlantic cooperation.)

Much more complicated are the challenges involving Iran: the only realistic chance is to integrate Iran into an international support group, along with Syria, focused on a shared interest in preventing Iraq’s further implosion. A bilateral U.S.-Iranian dialogue (on all issues!) will certainly help. Both the U.S. and the EU have to offer something to the Iranians as well: Sanctions will not force the regime to abandon its efforts to acquire the full nuclear fuel circle. Merkel has been very clear that Europe must be serious regarding UN demands and consider stronger targeted U.S.-European sanctions: otherwise it damages U.S. confidence in any multilateral efforts. In the view of some European governments, Washington must also seriously think about offering some deal to the Iranians, including some sort of regional security framework and an overhaul of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty that could include acceptance of a controlled Iranian nuclear capacity for civilian purposes.

Afghanistan is at least as important as Iraq in terms of fighting international terrorism. Greater engagement on the ground is needed from the EU – and the EU must cut back some member states’ national caveats on the use of their forces. (For example, Germany is under pressure to agree that its forces could support other allied forces in combat emergencies.) In other words, the alliance needs the same kind of synergy it achieved in the Balkans’ conflicts. Europeans also expect the United States to seriously think about a much closer link between its own mission to fight a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda and a common NATO/EU commitment to promote regional transformation, including the possibility of putting all the U.S. forces there under NATO command.

As a result, the EU today understands that the “areas of concern” in its vicinity require a much more pro-active European policy (especially in situations where it is no longer possible to wait for the Americans). For this, the EU needs to develop some kind of a strategic vision, either complementing or qualifying U.S. power.

What are the perspectives for the relationship? There are reasons for optimism, not just because of the famous and often-cited economic interdependence of the U.S. and the EU. Transatlantic relations have been marred by Washington’s mismanagement of allied relations, but there are signs of change there, and in Europe too. In particular, there are signs of U.S. agreement that traditional security concerns are increasingly bundled into circumstances that cannot be addressed by military power alone. Europeans are also thinking about power in more than economic terms. Only now are Europeans starting to realize that the power they exercised in their neighborhood was largely derived from the fact of the EU’s very existence and the lure of enlargement rather than from an active foreign policy. The new EU “troika” seems to recognize that there are areas of concern in its vicinity that require a much more pro-active foreign policy, especially in situations when it is no longer possible to wait for the Americans. This implies some development of strategic vision, either complementing or qualifying U.S. power.

There is an over-riding reality: the two sides of the Atlantic may differ with regard to the threat-perception triggered by these challenges – which in turn makes a difference in terms of how to materialize ones concept of international order. But no matter how much they differ, no one can change the fact that a shared vulnerability is an unavoidable variable in today’s world. The Transatlantic partners have their differences, but, despite these differences, both sides still have much, much more in common with each other than with any of the other actual or potential world powers.

Stefan Froehlich is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is the author of the upcoming book Perspectives for the Transatlantic Relations after the War in Iraq. This article is adapted from a presentation in June 2007 at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Washington.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.