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EU-US: Time to Normalise a Special Relationship

Submitted by on 18 Jul 2012 – 16:28

By Sir Graham Watson MEP, Editor, Government Gazette

Forged after World War II, the relationship between the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) is one of the strongest in the world. We have been united in fighting fascism, communism and building peace and prosperity in Europe. We share a commitment to democratic values of rule of law, transparency and due process.

These things are important, of course, but what binds us today is far more tangible. Our people participate in a dense web of work, travel and culture. The EU and US are the world’s largest trading partners accounting for about half the entire world GDP. Bilateral trade in goods between the EU and US is approximately 200 billion Euros annually and Foreign Direct Investment between the EU and US is between 80 – 100 Billion Euros on each side.

Recently, another war has been catalysing the evolution of the relationship. President Bush’s “War on Terror” and President Obama’s war against “Al-Qaeda and its allies” is not uniting but demarcating the differences between the two sovereign polities. We are divided on the use of military tools, such as drone attacks, or global law enforcement to fight terrorism and, most fundamentally, on the priority we place on security versus liberty. It is becoming increasingly clear that the “special relationship” is really about strategic interests.

This is not to degrade our relationship. It is far more damaging to EU-US relations to have unrealistic expectations of each other. Far healthier to consider this relationship as being driven by shared strategic aims. We need not fear frank disagreements on the policies which spring from shared values. We must normalise relations between the EU and US into that between sovereign allies. Both sides must learn to recognise the strengths and ambitions of the other side. It is a more realistic position that makes us better able to face global challenges.

Considering these changes there are steps that both sides could take to build a more constructive negotiating framework. It would help if the US were to recognise the EU as a political entity. When negotiating the controversial agreements on the transfer of data – SWIFT (financial data specifically international financial payments) and the EU-US Passenger Name Record (PNR) – the US relied on its influence on European member states. Wikileak cables also reveal that, during national debates on rendition, the US government asked the German, Italian and Spanish governments to consider the implications for bilateral relations.

This US approach fails on two grounds. The first is a practical one: the EU has competences in many aspects of border management, migration, financial transactions and transport. Second, the EU is a political entity in its own right. The European Parliament (EP) is not national legislative bodies’ writ large. It is, for example, a particularly staunch defender of rights and liberties. The US must endeavour to understand the political vision and values of the EU. Failure to do so with the negotiations SWIFT and the EU-US PNR resulted in some bruising encounters between the EP and the US with the EP rejecting first drafts of both legislation and insisting on further safeguards.

The EU certainly does not make it easy. US Secretary of State Clinton noted that “the system is designed so that we can’t have a strategic dialogue”. Its architecture is still evolving. Steps to streamline to the European Council with a Permanent President and a more powerful foreign policy representative are welcome. However, there are still too many bureaucratic structures and confusing proliferation of institutions

Furthermore, the EU should negotiate as an equal. It should ask why are EU member states (Romania, Bulgaria and Poland) not included in the Visa Waiver Programme between the EU and US. Why are EU nationals subject to searching intrusions into their privacy and charged to visit the US when the same does not apply the other way?

NATO as a Real Alliance

One of the major weaknesses of the transatlantic alliance is that the Europeans do not share a fair burden of the NATO alliance. It is simply not credible for the US to bear a disproportionate cost (some 75% of NATO defence costs) of maintaining the Alliance. The recent NATO mission in Libya clearly delineated the limits of the capacities of the European countries. The US had to be the main provider of intelligence and reconnaissance, command and control and refuelling. US Secretary of State for Defence Robert Gates chided the European allies for running out of ammunition in just eleven days.

No one is expecting the EU to be an equal military power. However, the EU can bring niche abilities and it must bring a credible will to lead. It is unacceptable for most European countries to continuously under-invest in their NATO capacities and to put limits on their operational commitment to NATO. Now more than ever, the EU has compelling reasons to be invested in the alliance and to ensure the US remains invested. As the US strategic interest shift towards Asia, the EU needs to lock America into NATO.

In turn, as the US military budget is to be slashed by nearly $500 billion in the next decade, the US needs the EU. In many parts of the world, US military power is more compelling if it has the EU acting beside it. The US needs an ally who is trusted, independent and can speak truth to power.

As American hard power declines EU soft power becomes more valuable. EU soft power is not some woolly, ill-defined liberal conceit. Far from it. At its best, soft power is the use of all our assets (trade, economy, culture and networks) and to place the considerable attraction of Europe at the service of our political goals. The recent sanctions against Iran show the positive role the EU can play.

Multilateralism is our Best Defence

In a world in flux, multilateral institutions are our best supporters. In fact, the US is the original soft power. The past 50 years of the Pax Americana was not built on military might alone. The real strength of the US on the global stage has been as an exporter of norms and as a builder of the multilateral system of global governance. At the end of WWII, the US understood that restraining its sovereignty was necessary to win broad support amongst other nation states in constructing a liberal system of open markets and international law. This is a lesson that seems to have been forgotten amongst some on the American right. The rationale for robust global governance is clearer than ever today.

There is every reason to be positive about the strength and flexibility of this relationship. It has withstood disagreements in foreign policy – even fierce ones. However, the secret to a good relationship is to never take it for granted. The EU-US relationship is a dynamic one but it does require effort and evolution on both sides.