EU must engage with America

Brown must stop sulking and start engaging with the EU so, post-Bush, Europe can speak more coherent

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Commentators on post-Bush EU-US relations divide inevitably into two camps: optimists, who believe “things can only get better” with the next President bound to be more multilateral; and the pessimists who point out the obstacles to a new era of transatlantic co-operation. Wherever you sit, understanding the “realist” position is critical if UK foreign policy is to help bring about something positive.

The realists tend to start with President George W Bush’s multiple failures: the unfinished business of Iraq and Afghanistan and the USA’s tarnished reputation. Then they focus on the partisan pressures from US domestic politics, the more pressing foreign policy issues that the next president will face – like China or Pakistan - and the shared view of most if not all candidates, that the EU is simply not capable of speaking collectively or acting militarily.

US domestic politics are vital, not least because the shape of the next US Congress will be as critical to many key international questions as the next president. From international trade through to negotiations on climate change, the willingness of Congress to stand up to protectionism and Big Oil will be vital.

An enlightened and strong president may be prepared to argue with Congress for a new approach to energy – whether they cite Hurricane Katrina or energy self-sufficiency. A pitch that wanted reduced oil imports so as to cut the petrodollars flowing to President Ahmedinejad might help win support. Yet on Doha, few in Congress see what’s in it for the US and the elections may see the anti-free trade coalition strengthened – likewise the growing awareness of China’s alternative development model in Africa and its use of sovereign wealth funds for strategic investments.

Indeed, while there is time for new poses, what is striking is the similarity of the foreign policy positions of most presidential candidates for president. Sure, Iraq has seen real differences, but beyond that most toxic of issues, the candidates’ rhetoric on weapons of mass destruction, terrorism or extra defence spending differs only in emphasis. Analysis by Kori Schake suggests the same is true on transatlantic relations as “all of the presidential campaigns are questioning whether Europe is doing enough to combat common problems.”

Yet in reality the domestic American political case for revitalised and closer EU-US relations could not be stronger. Whether it is radical Islam or nuclear proliferation, global politics are more local than ever before. Suicide bombers aren’t bothered by mutually assured destruction. It is dangerous to ignore disarmament and the fight against world poverty. For the optimists to win out, the US will need help to convince the world there’s a new agenda, not least with Russia and China flexing their new found muscles as energy and economic giants respectively.

Fortunately, there are signs of movement, leading to opportunities for Europe and America to work together for more noble common causes. With “change” emerging as the dominant political theme from the primaries, there’s strong evidence that American voters – both Democrat and Republican – crave a sharp break from the Bush/Cheney/Rove years, and the restoration of the international American dream.

In Europe, there is a growing appreciation that the EU needs to show it is both capable and willing to use hard and soft power more effectively. Witness Merkel’s widely acclaimed handling of Germany’s Presidency of both the EU and G8, Sarkozy’s pro-NATO noises and the Lisbon Treaty’s streamlining of the EU’s handling of foreign and defence affairs.

However, to take advantage of the unique opportunities that flow from change in America, Europe must prepare. The UK, France and Germany in particular need to limit their default tendencies to handle so many transatlantic issues bilaterally, so Europe can speak more coherently. The UK is well-placed to push that agenda, but to do so Gordon Brown must stop sulking and start engaging, even it provokes the Murdoch wrath.

Ed Davey MP is acting leader of the Liberal Democrats.