For decades, transatlantic relations have been a bedrock of stability – as well as a factor of positive change – for the international system. Historically, the Atlantic area has served as the world’s prime laboratory for multilateral initiatives, from the US-inspired post-WWII global institutions, to the creation of NATO and the European Union. In the words of the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, multilateralism aims at nothing less than ‘governing’ international relations through the definition of common norms.
In this vein, the US and the EU have used multilateral fora to promote not only international peace and security, but also to seek the universal recognition of key principles such as the rule of law, human rights, and democratic governance. Coming on the heels of the Cold War, the 1990 Transatlantic Declaration reaffirmed the unique bond between the US and the soon-to-be European Union in a post-bipolar context in which Western values seemed to command widespread appeal. In 1995, Madrid’s New Transatlantic Agenda put forward an ambitious and wide-ranging plan of action, which presciently addressed global issues whose relevance and urgency would become fully apparent in subsequent years, from terrorism to climate change.
This transatlantic unity of intent was not entirely spontaneous. It was attained through intense diplomatic dialogue between the two sides of the Atlantic, most publicly through a series of dedicated US-EU summits – a practice that has unfortunately been discontinued during the Obama years. As a result of this diplomatic effort, new transatlantic institutions were devised, for instance the Transatlantic Economic Council to support economic cooperation, promote trade liberalization, and harmonize regulations and standards.
The post-Cold War era was marked not only by reaffirmed transatlantic cooperation, but also by renewed transatlantic tension, especially since the 2000s. The history of transatlantic relations has been punctuated by crises and conflict from the very beginning, but recent disagreements have been particularly severe, from the crisis over Iraq during the Bush years to the unavoidable clash with President Trump’s “America First” agenda. At the roots of these tensions are many trends, yet America’s growing ambivalence towards multilateralism – and its oscillations between hegemonic and isolationistic temptations – have been key factors.
At the same time, transatlantic tensions have taken place against a backdrop of growing nationalism and populism on both sides of the Atlantic, with illiberal tendencies unfortunately affecting both America and Europe. As a matter of fact, transatlantic crises have never just pitted America versus Europe, but also revealingly divided Europe within itself, encouraging a clash between nationalist-populists of both sides of the pond against the defenders of the international liberal order. This was true during the Bush years and, to some extent at least, during the Trump years as well, with European sovereigntists displaying worrisome ideological and political affinities with the US administration.
Against this background, the election of the committed transatlanticist and multilateralist Joe Biden as President of the United States should not lead to any form of complacency, but nevertheless should be warmly welcomed by those in Europe who care about multilateralism and democracy as a long-awaited opportunity to revive transatlantic cooperation. While the EU and the US will continue to have disagreements on a host of issues, Europe only stands to gain from a competent and constructive US administration that supports further European integration and believes that a more capable and federal EU is not a threat to – rather increasingly a requirement for – a more modern, more balanced, and ultimately stronger transatlantic partnership. Those who argue that the EU was better off when it could define itself against Trump’s “America First” agenda underestimate the role that transatlantic cooperation has historically played in fostering European integration and European security.
This is why calls for a Transatlantic New Deal, such as those made in the Washington Post by French and German Foreign Ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maaas; and by President Charles Michel and his call for a “New Founding Pact” on 20th January 2021 should be fully heeded and backed by other European leaders at the national as well as EU levels. In this context, the “new transatlantic agenda for global change”, proposed by the European Commission and the High Representative in December 2020, offers to strengthen cooperation on a number of strategic issues, including but not limited to democracy and Human Rights, global warming, information technology and platforms, and data regulation. This new course would see a mix of old and new priorities, and would combine traditional security concerns with a broadly progressive agenda on some of the key tests facing the international community, from the fight against climate change to the articulation of a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable model of socio-economic development. It is important to avoid developing a number of disjointed sectoral accords, but rather to frame this strengthened cooperation in the context of a comprehensive Transatlantic Pact.
Yet, in order for the EU to fully seize the new transatlantic momentum, two misconceptions that are entertained in some European policy circles should be dispelled. The first one is that rediscovered transatlantic unity would hamper plans for greater “European strategic autonomy”. The second one has to do with the notion of European “equidistance” between the US and China as the two international heavyweights lock horns in a contest for global primacy.
For all the debate surrounding European strategic autonomy – a formula popularized by the 2016 EU Global Strategy and embraced especially by French President Emmanuel Macron – this concept should never boil down to choosing between transatlantic solidarity and European sovereignty. If anything, the strategic interdependence between the US and Europe has become only more apparent in recent years as non-democratic actors around the globe – often with ties to EU home-grown national-populists – have become more assertive, propounding governance models, as well as principles and values, that are in opposition to the governance, principles, and values of the West.
In this more competitive environment marked by great power rivalry, European strategic autonomy should translate into the EU as a more significant actor in security and defense, mainly through deeper integration – and heavier economic investment – in these realms. As the EU Global Strategy already recognized in 2016 and the EU High Representative has reiterated more recently, European strategic autonomy should take place within the framework of renewed transatlantic partnership. In fact, Europe has nothing to gain in strategic terms from a weakening US or a loosening transatlantic connection.
This leads to the second question, that is, the relationship with a rising China. Europe has no interest in seconding the emergence of a new Cold War of sorts – let alone the outbreak of a hot war – between Washington and Beijing. The EU has also been correct in recognizing that, from a European standpoint at least, China is both a systemic competitor and a possible partner on key global issues, from arms control to climate change. Initiatives such as the new EU-China investment deal, attained during the German presidency of the EU in December, rightly aim at reaping the benefits of economic cooperation while ensuring that this finally takes place on a level playing field in which long-standing asymmetries are reduced and key European interests are protected.
Yet, this nuanced approach should not lead to any flirtation with the notion of a European equidistance between the US and China, as some in Europe had advocated during the Trump years. While the EU may rightly argue that containment alone does not amount to a viable strategy with China, European leaders need to recognize that the ties that bind Europe with the US – historically, politically, and culturally – are stronger than any economic incentive China may offer now or in the future. A Transatlantic New Deal, therefore, requires a common understanding of the challenges posed by China to the international liberal order and should outline concrete initiatives, from the ever more important and ubiquitous subject of technology to trade issues, to confront China when this is needed. This is why the much-needed revival of US-EU summitry should be accompanied by broader multilateral efforts, signally turning Biden’s idea of a Summit of Democracies into a useful and permanent forum to reinvigorate a global conversation and action about democracy and its continuing value in national as well as international politics. The 80th anniversary of the Atlantic Charter in the summer of 2021 could be a propitious occasion to kick-off this project.
Domènec Ruiz Devesa, MEP and Nacho Sánchez Amor, MEP are Members of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament, elected from Spain and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party.
Emiliano Alessandri is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States
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