A new year, a new European Commission and a US president who can no longer get by simply by not being George Bush create an opportunity to take a new look at the US-EU strategic relationship for the new decade.
The current transatlantic alliance is the product of grand projects to win the Cold War and to create a united and peaceful Europe. But, much like marriages, international relationships built on memories eventually erode, victims of petty differences. To become stronger and prosper, US-EU ties need renewal through the pursuit of new security and economic endeavours that reflect shared interests in commonly defined goals.
Brussels and Washington have long shied away from a purposeful strategic dialogue of this kind, fearing it might bring tensions to the surface, widening rather than narrowing the transatlantic divide on a range of issues.
But faced with a newly assertive Russia, unprecedented economic competition from China and a shared stake in slowing global warming and curtailing international terrorism, this mutual ‘don’t rock the boat’ mentality is dangerously short-sighted.
A new purpose for the transatlantic relationship needs to be agreed upon before the new European Council president and the Commission become set in their ways and before the US administration of Barack Obama is further distracted by domestic challenges.
Institutionally, this is an appropriate time for Brussels and Washington to launch a strategic dialogue: NATO is developing a new strategic concept, the Lisbon treaty has empowered the EU to take on unprecedented foreign-affairs responsibilities and the Transatlantic Economic Partnership has run out of steam.
This official dialogue should involve the Council, the Commission, the European Parliament, the US administration and the US Congress. To encourage thinking bolder than can be expected from government bureaucrats, Brussels and Washington should also appoint an expert group, much as NATO has done, charged with coming up with strategic recommendations by the end of 2010. These advisers should then publicly hold Washington and Brussels accountable to act upon their recommendations. The expert group should be small, no more than a dozen people with both economic and security expertise, drawn from the business community, think-tanks and the academic community.
High on the agenda of the strategic dialogue should be a strategy for broadening and deepening the transatlantic market. This has long been a token mutual goal that has failed for lack of ambition.
Yet a study for the Commission published in December concluded that elimination of just half of the transatlantic non-tariff trade measures and regulatory divergences could add €122 billion (now $176bn) a year to the EU economy by 2018.
That is more than four times higher than the EU stands to gain from the current Doha round of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations on agriculture and manufacturing, according to a 2009 estimate by Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
US gains from a transatlantic deal would be less, only €41bn ($59bn), but still three times the potential benefit of the Doha deal now on the table in Geneva.
A strategic dialogue could address whether freer transatlantic trade should become an alliance priority, whether there should be a target date for achieving that goal, and how Brussels and Washington should jointly address third-party objections to the creation of a single transatlantic market.
Obama’s election to the presidency raised unrealistic expectations in Europe of a new day in transatlantic relations. Because of the White House’s failure to close the Guantánamo prison, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the US’s foot-dragging on climate change, such goodwill is rapidly dissipating. For its part, owing to the lame-duck status of the Commission for much of 2009, uncertainty about the Lisbon treaty and national preoccupations, Europe is viewed in Washington as not having responded to the Obama administration’s overtures for closer co-operation. A transatlantic strategic dialogue in 2010 is needed to change this dynamic.
Bruce Stokes is a transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the international economics columnist for the Washington-based National Journal.