Jumpstarting the U.S.-EU Relationship: Mr. Obama Goes to Brussels

If the recent crisis in Ukraine has brought home one clear message, it is this: policy unity between the United States and the European Union is absolutely essential. NATO will remain the first place where the United States will turn due to our treaty obligations and our status as a member. Yet the European Union is an increasingly important player in the transatlantic policy discourse, and Washington has been slow to fully recognize it. Therefore, it is very timely and fitting that, for the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama will visit Brussels on March 26 for the U.S.-EU summit.

That said, while the EU leadership is eagerly awaiting the meeting, the history of U.S.-EU summits has been long on aspirations and short on achievements.

So what can we reasonably expect from this, the first transatlantic summit in over two years?

The Unfinished Agenda

First, let’s look at the score card from the last summit in Washington. Measured against the official declaration issued at the end of the meeting, the track record is not bad. One major achievement was the decision to set up a High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, which ultimately resulted in the launch of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It is easy to forget, but at the time, it was not a foregone conclusion that the two sides would go ahead with such a comprehensive free trade agreement, a goal that had eluded decisionmakers for literally decades. One downside: the inauguration of TTIP meant that the preexisting Transatlantic Economic Council was virtually disbanded, meaning that ongoing efforts to cut back costly regulatory barriers to trade and investment were largely put on hold for the duration of the trade talks.

Another bright spot was Iran. After the Washington summit, the United States and European Union spearheaded extraordinary international cooperation on sanctions, including a nearly total oil embargo that helped force Tehran to the negotiating table. No one is ready to declare victory, but transatlantic cooperation in this instance showed that economic sanctions can work if the United States and its European allies pull together.

A third important deliverable, which required a huge lift on both sides of the Atlantic, was the conclusion of a renewed U.S.-EU Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement in 2012, which gives law enforcement agencies access to airline passenger data in order to prevent terrorist attacks. PNR proved to be much tougher to conclude than anticipated because it fell prey to an intense, broader debate within the European Union over data privacy. Unfortunately, this was a harbinger for much more difficult discussions following a series of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and intelligence revelations that have set back the transatlantic dialogue on data protection.

Other priorities from the 2011 summit showed more modest and less measurable results. Climate change (some cooperation in international forums despite major differences over limits on greenhouse gas emissions), stability in the Western Balkans (progress on Serbia-Kosovo, setbacks in Bosnia), and development assistance (coordination on humanitarian aid to Syria and Africa despite differing approaches to targeting aid) are illustrative examples.

The Eurozone crisis, the headline issue at the last summit, has considerably eased for now, but tensions over macroeconomic imbalances (e.g., German’s current account surplus), Europe’s response to its economic downturn (e.g., austerity versus stimulus), and differences on financial regulations remain unresolved.

Energy security also showed mixed results, an issue that the crisis in Ukraine has once again underscored. Although its energy revolution has improved American self-sufficiency, the European commitment to renewables and its resistance toward developing unconventional fossil fuel resources have widened the transatlantic competitiveness gap—and increased the continent’s dependence on Russian gas.

As instability in those regions persist, U.S. and EU summit pronouncements on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Arab Spring, the Middle East peace process, and especially Syria, ring somewhat hollow in retrospect.

Finally, the ambitious agenda for EU-NATO cooperation and for U.S.-EU collaboration on cybersecurity and cybercrime fell short of expectations; the U.S.-EU cyber working group called for in 2011, for instance, never got off the ground.

Contain Your Enthusiasm

Brussels and Washington will undoubtedly want to trumpet their successes and set an ambitious agenda for the future, but there are serious constraints on what they can expect to accomplish:

  • First, EU leaders are at the end of their tenure. The European-wide elections in May 2014, the first in five years, will mean that about half the European Parliament (EP) will turn over, with populist parties on the far Right and Left potentially capturing up to a quarter of the seats. This will be followed by a wholesale overhaul of the executive Commission (about two-thirds of sitting commissioners won’t return), which will bring a new Commission President in July, and a new Council President (representing member states), foreign policy High Representative, and Parliament President in the fall. The EP is already beginning to wrap up its business and go into election mode. And although the Commission bureaucracy (such as the EU trade team) will carry on its everyday business, it will not initiate new legislation or undertake bold reforms in the interim.
  • The TTIP negotiations won’t be anywhere close to completion. When the leaders meet, the two sides will have just exchanged their initial tariff reduction offers at the fourth round of TTIP talks in Brussels. The summit can announce steady progress toward an agreement, but the talks are still a long way from being finished. The toughest discussions on regulatory issues still lie ahead, so 2015 or even 2016 is the earliest realistic closing date for the negotiations. Moreover, it is very unlikely that President Obama will have the Fast-Track authorization he needs from Congress to close a deal on either TTIP or the separate Asian trade talks (Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP) by the end of March. Thus, neither side will be able to make precise market-opening commitments or say much more than that TTIP will generate a certain amount of jobs and growth when completed. So no grand strategic breakthrough on TTIP that would transform the transatlantic relationship is likely in the near term.
  • The NSA revelations will cast a pall over the summit. Suffice it to say that Angela Merkel is not the only European leader angry about the series of intelligence and surveillance revelations, and it complicates discussion of some of the most vexing issues in the transatlantic relationship. Despite decades of excellent cooperation on customs, law enforcement, and counterterrorism, Americans and Europeans differ on how best to protect individual freedoms in cyberspace. Europeans want data protection enshrined in law, whereas the United States generally favors administrative regulations and voluntary best practices. The NSA revelations have led European politicians at both the national (member state) and EU level to question the validity of key data-sharing agreements with the United States.
  • Overarching security concerns could crowd out the rest of the EU agenda. The president will be coming directly from the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. While in Brussels, he may need to drop by NATO headquarters and pay a courtesy call on the Belgian government. Foreign and security concerns regarding Ukraine—but also related to Syria and Iran—could easily dominate the discussions with EU leaders. How much time will be left for substantive discussions on the rest of the EU agenda—trade, jobs and growth, and data privacy? The last summit in Washington lasted just a few hours while the one before that (Lisbon in November 2010), which came after a NATO summit, was only 90 minutes in duration.

A Short List of Priorities

Given all these caveats, what should the United States and European Union focus on, and what can they reasonably expect to accomplish at the summit? Here is a short list:

  • Reaffirm the Atlantic Alliance, the importance of a strong Europe, and the European Union’s central role in it. This might seem obvious given the crisis in Ukraine and the ongoing European economic crisis, but it is something that the European Union needs to hear again and again. The Union deserves credit for its engagement in the Ukraine crisis and its recent $15 billion aid package. It has accelerated democratic reform and institutional development throughout Central and Eastern Europe and in the Western Balkans. The Union’s critical role on Iran sanctions and nonproliferation should also be highlighted. Because the European integration project has been under such enormous stress for the past four years, Brussels should receive a solid vote of confidence from the United States, including an affirmation that a strong European Union is in the U.S. interest.
  • A firm commitment to complete the TTIP. This would be a great time to remind the trade skeptics that the volume of transatlantic trade ($1 trillion) and investment ($4 trillion) is immense, many times larger than that with countries like China, so TTIP will mean significant jobs and growth gains for Americans and Europeans alike. Our economies are so integrated (ask the auto, pharmaceutical, and aerospace manufacturers) that any progress on harmonizing standards and regulations will make us more globally competitive and set the rules and standards for international trade well into the future. TTIP is a significant win for both our economies and our values as societies, and we need to make it happen.
  • Forthrightly address the NSA issue to preserve our current information-sharing arrangements. Official Washington keeps hoping the problem has gone away, or will go away, but it hasn’t and it won’t. Unless Europeans see more progress on data protection, national politicians and European parliamentarians are threatening to shut down some of our most important (and hard fought) agreements—Safe Harbor, which helps U.S. firms conform with European data-privacy laws; the Terrorist Finance Tracking Program (TFTP, or “SWIFT”), which is critical to shutting down terrorist organizations’ access to international banks; and the PNR, which protects our citizens. The president should acknowledge, at least in principle, European demands for equal treatment of their citizens, while the European side (including the member states, which retain primary responsibility for counterterrorism and intelligence) should recognize U.S. helpfulness in protecting EU citizens. No simple solutions to this question, but a serious, roll-up-your-sleeve approach would help, as would a renewed commitment to enhance cyber cooperation.
  • And then the laundry list. Undoubtedly, the summit statement will include a long foreign policy wish list to include cooperation in the Asia Pacific, stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and peace in the Middle East. Although the European External Action Service (EEAS) still faces strong competition from the member states, especially on security issues, it deserves praise for its good work on Iran, maritime antipiracy, peacekeeping in Kosovo, engagement in the Sahel, cybersecurity strategy, and more. Closer cooperation between the European Union and NATO could reduce duplication and improve Europe’s effectiveness as America’s most important security partner, as could continuing coordination of foreign assistance in the Sahel and Horn of Africa. A nod to energy security, coupled with an unspecified pledge to combat climate change, can also be expected. Sustainable and balanced growth, innovation, and jobs, and an affirmation of Western values, democracy, and freedom will likely round out the hopes and aspirations of the summit declaration.

Summits like this are often exercises in symbolism, but Washington and Brussels have an exceptional opportunity to push a few concrete deliverables across the finish line while setting an ambitious agenda for the next time around. It’s the very least we should expect from the world’s biggest and most important relationship.

Robert Pollard is a State Department visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. He is writing in his personal capacity and the views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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