The U.S.-EU Summit: Hoping for a Single, Anticipating a Bunt

On November 20, on the margins of the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, President Obama will meet with leaders of the European Union. Dark and inauspicious clouds are forming on the eve of the summit as an economic crisis once again grips Europe. Lisbon is an important reminder to Washington policymakers that the political and economic aftershocks emanating from the European debt crisis continue unabated along Europe’s periphery and pose a potentially existential threat to the great European integration project.

Q1: What will U.S. and EU leaders talk about during the summit?

The proposed U.S.-EU agenda is robust, but time is exceedingly short for discussion. In just two hours, EU leaders and the U.S. president will discuss three baskets of issues on the economy, security and foreign policy, and global issues related to climate change and international aid coordination. The first order of business will be to encourage job creation and promote economic recovery on both sides of the Atlantic through a series of measures to reduce trade barriers and enhance regulatory cooperation and standardization. This topic is not inconsequential. Trade, investment, and economic engagement between the United States and the European Union amounts to some $1 billion per day. By some estimates, 1 job in 10 in the United States is linked to trade flows with EU countries. There will be continued discussion and follow-up to the G-20 Summit, although it is unclear where the discussion will lead. Europe, and particularly Germany, strongly disagree with U.S. monetary policy (the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy, which has caused the euro to appreciate) and desire to set specific numeric targets on current account imbalances.

EU countries are also the United States’ major partner in promoting growth in the developing world, which can help prevent further turmoil. The United States and the European Union account for about 80 percent of development assistance. So at a time of fiscal austerity on both sides of the Atlantic, it is helpful that the summit is expected to reach agreement on more effective coordination of foreign assistance efforts.

On security, there will be a discussion on ways to enhance counterterrorism cooperation in light of recent threats (and U.S. travel advisories) in Europe, as well as a discussion of a proposed new cyber-security initiative. If time remains, there may be a discussion regarding Iran, climate change (in preparation for next month’s UN meeting in Cancun, Mexico), and ways to better coordinate U.S. and EU humanitarian and development assistance.

Q2: Who will the President Obama meet with during the summit?

President Obama will have his first working meeting with the president of the European Council, former Belgian prime minister Herman von Rompuy, a post that has existed for less than a year, which represents the 27 EU heads of state. President von Rompuy is a skilled, behind-the-scenes player whose leadership and management skills have been severely tested as he attempts to bridge the fiscal policy gap among EU member states and to prevent further erosion in market confidence related to addressing the Irish economic crisis. Obama will also meet with the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, the powerful executive of the European Union, and with the newly created high representative for EU common and security policy, Lady Catherine Ashton. Barroso, von Rompuy, and Ashton are all adjusting to new institutional realities following ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the emergence of a new political voice in Europe, the European Parliament.

Q3: What is the state of transatlantic affairs these days, a year and half into the Obama administration?

Economic issues have become even more prominent in transatlantic relations, yet President Obama is spending less than two hours on U.S.-EU economic matters amidst a significant European economic crisis with major consequences for the United States and other countries. While NATO has always been the cornerstone of the U.S. relationship with Europe, it is essential that today’s transatlantic relationship be better balanced with greater focus on driving the transatlantic economy. There is great promise in this economic space, but there are also great challenges as the United States and Europe propose significantly different fiscal and financial regulatory policies.

Transatlantic diplomacy in some ways is like competitive figure skating: you get marks for technical merit and artistic ability. On the surface, the technical marks for transatlantic relations under the Obama administration are fairly good. Both sides meet frequently on a broad range of topics and are engaged globally. The artistic marks, unfortunately, are low. There seems to be a deficit of energy, innovation, and enthusiasm on both sides. The relationship frequently becomes bogged down, and each side vents frustration about the other. Europe complains that Washington is only interested in China and other emerging economies, or has become too domestically absorbed. Defensively, Washington complains that Europe is mired in its countless institutions, leaders, and processes, all of which take too much time and energy and simply don’t provide the immediate return on investment that Washington craves.

It is a luxury to express these sentiments. The United States should be happy that Europe is connected by institutions and processes and not disconnected by war or hate. But let’s not assume that Europe will always remain the success story that it is. Dramatic change is occurring in Europe at this very moment fueled by Europe’s sovereign debt economic crisis. It is conceivable that in a few years we may find that one of the United States’ closest partners has grown distant. It is time for some artistry.

Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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