There is no doubt that the transatlantic relationship has not been through its smoothest period in recent years.
A decade ago, the Commission was worried that our trade disputes with the US might affect our political relationship. In recent years, the concern has at times been the opposite, about the possible impact of political tensions on the economic relationship. Inevitably these differences have affected public opinion in Europe, with 58% of Europeans viewing US leadership in world affairs undesirable, a figure largely unchanged since 2003.
But the differences have been endlessly highlighted and this negative story has masked a more positive one. What has passed almost unnoticed is that, in recent years, the US has come to recognise the need to treat the EU as an equal partner.
To take a few examples, the US has moved its official views on climate change from denial of the scientific evidence to the possibility of a jointly signed UN agreement in Copenhagen next year. We have a long way to go still, but what cannot be denied is how far US positions have moved towards European ones.
On Iran’s nuclear programme, the US supported, and then joined an EU initiative to broker a negotiated solution. Recent attempts by some policymakers in Washington to take a more hawkish approach have been stymied by the assessments of their own intelligence establishment. It is a different story from Iraq, but it is at least as significant, showing how much a joint EU/US approach can achieve, even on the most sensitive issues of nuclear security.
Despite the tensions, throughout this period, the polling evidence has consistently shown that Americans and Europeans want closer economic ties. One survey last month shows that around two thirds on both sides of the pond support a new initiative aimed at deepening transatlantic trade and investment. Don’t forget, between them, the EU and the US still count for 60% of global economic output, 40% of international trade (and that’s not counting EU internal trade), and most development aid.
The public symbols of Washington’s approach to Europe have changed too. Two months after his re-election, President Bush was the first US President for two decades to visit the EU’s headquarters. Polls of Americans show a more positive perception of Europeans emerging. We have come a long way from the days of freedom fries and cheese eating surrender monkeys.
So whoever wins the US presidential election next year, the seeds of a more equal relationship have already been sown. The question is how this will be built on by the next US administration and by the European Union.
I suspect that both Europe and the US will find it necessary to build on this more equal relationship. Whatever our differences, there is more that unites us in international outlook than with any other actor on the international stage. So who else if not each other are we going to turn to when we build privileged partnerships?
I also think that Europe and America still have much to admire and to learn from each other. If the US can learn from the EU’s approach to conflict resolution, I believe that we can learn a good deal from the US approach to legal migration, or their innovations in participatory democracy in the running of local services.
Culturally, it’s clear that something has changed when rappers like Jay Z start using piles of euros in their videos and the world’s richest model insists on being paid in euros. The predictors of Euro doom are strangely silent these days.
So, just maybe, another decade on, we will be looking back at this period as the time that the EU came of age with a stable currency, strong institutions, and a clear policy remit. One proof of this maturity will be the emergence of a more equal transatlantic partnership.
Margot Wallstrom, Vice-President, Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy
European Commission, will be a speaker at the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January