The transatlantic relationship is currently going through an “it’s complicated” phase. Donald Trump’s presidency is challenging conventional wisdom about EU-US cooperation, and undiplomatic words have damaged relationships. Partly this is just tough stump talk – Trump appeared to cheer the disintegration of the EU and called Nato ‘obsolete’ during his campaign. Macron and Merkel, both facing parliamentary elections, have found it useful for domestic audiences to see them standing up to Trump. However, Europe needs to make sure it finds a way of getting on with the US before it falls into a self-fulfilling rhetorical trap. To secure the transatlantic partnership that has built the traditional “West” since the end of the Second World War, substantive action must be taken.
This is not the first time that the EU and US have faced this challenge. It was only in 2003 that the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, splitting Europe and straining relations to breaking point. At the time, talk was prevalent of how “old Europe”, represented by France and Germany, was from “Venus”, while the US and the ‘new Europe’ of the Eastern accession states, were from “Mars”. On a personal level, the ice-cold relationship between Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac on one side, and Tony Blair and George Bush on the other, marked a new low in the post-war Western community.
Ultimately, however, hard-nosed arguments for maintaining a close relationship prevailed. The US protective umbrella helps to guarantee Europe’s security (for now), an argument that carries extra weight in times of a resurgent Russia. Meanwhile, Europe is an essential complement to US hard power through its large-scale spending on official development aid, its ability to impose economic sanctions that bite, and its funding for international organisations.
The EU and US are also each other’s most important trading partner and together account for just under a third of global trade. Beyond bilateral relationships, by virtue of forming the largest trade and investment relationship in the world, the EU and US have often jointly been able to set the rules for the global economy.
Yet these benefits are no longer self-evident, as the last few months demonstrate. On the US side, the natural implication of an “America First” policy is a desire to avoid any entangling commitments abroad. Thus, Trump, his key advisers, and his Secretaries of State and Commerce, see international alliances as shackling the United States rather than as an enabler and multiplier of its power. In Europe, this has generated a countervailing reaction as leaders have discovered they can use anti-Trump rhetoric to great electoral success, particularly in France and Germany.
Recently, we have seen China and India beginning to step into the void created by US withdrawal from the international order. Over the last few months, the Chinese have consciously pursued a strategy of presenting themselves as the new pillar of ‘liberal’ global order, arguing in favour of free trade and stepping up the activities of their ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative. Just last week both Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi were in Berlin, making the case for policies often associated with the US – free trade, support for the international order, and combating climate change.
However, instead of writing off the transatlantic partnership Europe needs to recover functioning relations with the US administration. This is not to deny the merits of much of the EU’s critique of Trump’s foreign policy. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to argue against speaking out: this relationship, just like any true friendship, relies on candid exchanges. Yet, there must also be a clear appreciation that it should be robust enough to to survive electoral tactics in Europe and the US.
In fact, Brexit only makes this more necessary. The UK has traditionally played the role of “translator” of European interests to the US and vice versa. Without a Britain closely anchored in EU affairs, the risks of mutual misperception and misunderstanding increase.
What should this revived relationship look like? In the short term, cooperation needs to continue on key topics of mutual interest. In security, the recent discussions about developing EU-wide defence capabilities need to carefully incorporate the role of NATO, while EU states should come up with creative ways to jointly finance additional expenditures. Meanwhile, negotiations on the TTIP trade agreement need to be sustained with a narrower focus, potentially dropping controversial investment arbitration provisions.
In the long term, Europe and the US need to plant the seeds that can help mutual understanding despite leadership changes and populist waves. This requires a three-pronged approach.
First, we must ensure policy officials, and not only their principals, have a shared grasp of each other’s operating environment. To do so we must establish a large-scale exchange between civil servants of the US, European states and EU institutions. This is crucial to future-proofing institutional cooperation.
Second, we should link efforts to spur economic growth through business contacts, by establishing a transatlantic entrepreneur exchange programme. This would not just foster understanding but stimulate the exchange of best practices and ideas.
Third, Europe must apply the lessons of the Erasmus programme to the transatlantic relationship. Establishing a broad and low-threshold exchange programme for American and European high-school and university students will strengthen people-to-people contacts and make EU-US cooperation part of everyday lives.
The transatlantic relationship is experiencing plenty of turbulence in the midst of electoral campaigns. In response to Trump, EU leaders understandably and rightly seek to strengthen the EU’s own capabilities. Yet the enormous structural benefits of EU-US cooperation also mean leaders urgently need to find a way to coexist more harmoniously.
Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government. Lukas Lausen is an ex-aide to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and secretary general of NATO. Both currently study at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.