2018 Global Outlook: The Euro-Atlantic relationship

The transatlantic relationship can be described as a family matter – with the United States as the mostly benevolent patriarch and Europe as the dependent relatives. Relations had been cooling for at least a decade, but this process is being expedited by the presidency of Donald Trump.

French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel at an EU summit on defense
Dec. 14, 2017: French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk at a ceremony launching EU military cooperation in Brussels © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Europe has accepted that it can no longer rely on the U.S. for global leadership
  • In defense, structured cooperation is the first sign that the EU is starting to act
  • On trade policy, the EU could gain influence is setting global standards
  • The key challenge is to avoid damaging transatlantic structures, especially NATO

The postwar transatlantic relationship is often described as a family matter – with the United States cast as the powerful and mostly benevolent hegemon and the (Western) European countries as more or less distant relatives, dependent on the protection and goodwill of their patriarch. Relations had been cooling for at least a decade, but this process was expedited by the presidency of Donald Trump. Even worse, mutual trust has eroded.

Both sides now seem to agree that Europe needs to grow up and take charge of its own destiny. The coming years will most likely see an accelerated “coming-of-age” in Europe, which means the “new normal” in transatlantic relations may resemble the turmoil of late adolescence.

Still, this new era could lead to a better, more balanced relationship, provided that (a) adolescence does indeed lead to maturity; and (b) Uncle Sam does not succumb to senile dementia in the meantime.

Growing estrangement

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is careful to avoid strong language in international affairs, made two unusual remarks in May 2017: “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over” and “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” It had become clear to her and other European leaders that a transatlantic free trade agreement (TTIP) would no longer be pursued by the new American government and that the 2015 Paris Agreement on curbing carbon emissions would no longer be honored by the U.S. At the same time, uncertainty was growing (and still is) over what “America First” might imply for the geopolitical cornerstone of transatlantic relations: NATO and common defense.

Not only Europe’s politicians remain bewildered about U.S. foreign policy. European public opinion has also taken an unprecedented dislike to American leadership. A December 2017 poll shows that 54 percent of Germans describe U.S.-German relations as “bad.” The reverse is not true, however: 68 percent of Americans think mutual relations are “good.”

There are structural reasons why transatlantic estrangement will be more than a passing, Trump-related phase.

This year brought an even more disturbing poll, in which more than twice as many Germans surveyed (25 percent) said they are confident that Vladimir Putin “will do the right thing” than Donald Trump (11 percent). President Putin trumps President Trump in other European countries, too, including Greece (50 percent to 19 percent), France (18 percent to 14 percent), Sweden (12 percent to 10 percent) and Spain (8 percent to 7 percent).

These figures suggest that the White House’s current occupant has become a liability for future transatlantic relations. And it seems unlikely that Donald Trump is willing or able to restore goodwill on the European side, because that would risk estranging his supporters at home.

Signs of (European) maturity

There are other, structural reasons why the current transatlantic estrangement will probably be more than a passing, Trump-related phase. But the key question here is how Europe chooses to react to the situation. Will it emulate Trumpism in a “Europe First” reflex of isolationist anti-Americanism? Or will it create its own policies aimed at defending Western values in an inclusive, multilateral way?

By its very nature, Europe’s politics is multilateral, complex and slow. It must accommodate dozens of sovereign states, whether EU members or associated countries on the outer fringes of policymaking. Europe has made great progress in terms of economic integration over the past 60 years; but its many efforts to create “one voice” in foreign and defense policies (and on foreign trade as well) have either failed or gotten stuck in the infant stages.

Wiser from this experience, perhaps Europe is more willing than before to leave its geopolitical adolescence behind. Arguably, the shock of President Trump was necessary to speed up this coming-of-age.

Defense policy

“Europe cannot and should not outsource our security and defense,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared in December 2017, during a presentation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). The venture has been described as “the first operational step” toward a European Defence Union.

Under PESCO, 25 EU member states (the United Kingdom, Denmark and Malta are not taking part) agreed to pick from a menu of 17 collaborative defense projects (a behavior once known as “cherry-picking”). Poland, for example, will only participate in two: military mobility and radio interoperability. Other projects seek to build “capabilities” in areas like medical services, military training, maritime surveillance, interoperability of artillery systems or cyber resilience.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump at the November 2017 APEC summit in Vietnam transatlantic relationship
More than twice as many Germans (25%) think that Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) would “do the right thing” than Donald Trump (11%), according to a recent public opinion poll. © dpa

The idea of permanent structured cooperation on defense was already described in Article 42.6 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. But it might still be a dead letter without Donald Trump’s fierce insistence on more equitable burden-sharing, which helped get a deal agreed quickly. Despite this apparent success, PESCO reveals the old complexities and intricacies of EU policymaking. Many “plans” do not go beyond declarations of intent, often repeating promises made years before.

While PESCO is a collection of intergovernmental projects, a new European Defence Fund (with planned investments of 5.5 billion euros per year) will create incentives for member states to cooperate on the joint development and acquisition of defense equipment and technology. These will come primarily through co-financing from the EU budget and practical support from the Commission.

France, meanwhile, proposed a more exclusive and hard-hitting scheme for rapid military operations. President Emmanuel Macron suggested a “European Intervention Initiative” with a common doctrine and budget. More notably, its chain of command would be outside and independent of the conventional decision-making structures of the EU and NATO. This idea of “operational autonomy” is an explicit search for “European sovereignty” – a leitmotiv of Mr. Macron’s “Initiative for Europe” – and could possibly allow non-EU countries like Norway or post-Brexit UK to be included. Mr. Macron’s initiative is unlikely to be welcomed by many East Europeans, however, who put more trust for collective defense in NATO under U.S. leadership.

Even uncoordinated efforts of each side of the Atlantic can still be mutually beneficial.

These new initiatives will take time to yield tangible results. Meanwhile, there will be little change in the asymmetry between the foreign and defense policies pursued on both sides of the Atlantic. The U.S. has one army, one command structure and the most powerful military in the world. The main uncertainty (which already existed under President Barack Obama) is what the commander in chief wants to do with it.

Europe, on the other hand, has only just started to interlink its many armies and reduce redundant capacities in procurement and logistics. It is also very far from having a unified military doctrine and chain of command. The cultural and constitutional differences between France, for example (where the president has executive power to decide on military operations) and Germany (where parliament has the first and final say) will not disappear anytime soon.

It would be delusional to assume that Europe can somehow displace NATO. The coming years will show whether decision makers on both sides of the Atlantic understand that they will still be stronger by acting together rather than trying to duplicate the existing transatlantic defense system.

If all goes well, the uncoordinated efforts of each side can still be mutually beneficial and reinforcing. If not, the transatlantic partnership will develop into a transatlantic rivalry, with all that such a zero-sum or negative-sum game implies for the defense of the West and its values.

Trade policy

Compared to its ambitions, Europe (and especially the EU) has not been very successful in reaching substantial Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the rest of the world. This has mostly stemmed from the difficulty of accommodating the diverse sectoral and ideological interests of 28 sovereign states.

However, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom has recently led successful negotiations with Ukraine, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. She intends to add more partners to the list, including the ASEAN and Mercosur countries. India, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are all at different stages of FTA negotiations. In addition, a comprehensive investment agreement with China, which will replace the bilateral agreements of individual member countries, has reached the stage of a joint negotiating text.


Facts & figures

EU trade agreements

World map of current and pending EU trade agreements transatlantic relationship  transatlantic relationship
Europe has fallen short of its ambition to reach free trade agreements with the rest of the world, but has still done much better than the U.S., giving it potential influence and leverage. © macpixxel for GIS

The U.S. list of (20 total) established FTAs looks less impressive than the EU’s. The main American partners include NAFTA members Canada and Mexico, Australia, Israel and South Korea. As for its future trade agenda, Washington seems to be retracing its steps. With President Trump’s decisions to freeze TTIP talks with the EU, withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiate or revoke NAFTA, and block the World Trade Organization dispute settlement system, protectionism is returning as a guiding idea in Washington.

This leaves an opening for the EU to take the lead in shaping future world trade standards. Some of its favorite initiatives (stricter rules and controls on foreign direct investment, social and environmental requirements for traded goods) also smack of protectionism. Even so, the U.S. must take most of the blame for losing the one great chance (TTIP) to set a shared transatlantic standard for world trade.

London bridge is falling

On top of its ambitious integration projects, the EU faces its largest-ever negotiation on disintegration: Brexit. In 2018, the UK and the EU will have to hammer out the basis of their future relationship and how they will navigate the multi-year transition period leading up to it.

Since the end of World War II, the UK has been a net contributor to Europe’s defense and security in terms of military spending and capabilities. London could use this as a bargaining chip to leverage its demands for access to EU markets after Brexit.

At the same time, Brexit, like the Trump presidency, seems to have become a catalyst for more ambitious EU defense integration. This is especially true because the UK often vetoed moves toward a European Defence Union as an unnecessary and even dangerous parallel structure to NATO.

The UK’s messy divorce with the EU could lead to more messages being “lost in translation”.

Based on its “special relationship” with the U.S., the UK offered the most natural transatlantic bridge between Europe and America. Its messy divorce with the EU could lead to more messages being “lost in translation” across the Atlantic. In December 2017, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted that after Brexit, 80 percent of the alliance’s defense expenditure will come from non-EU members. “This strengthens the arguments for closer NATO-EU cooperation,” he concluded. But it is not certain that Mr. Stoltenberg was properly understood on either side of the Atlantic.

Adult version

The future geopolitical logic of transatlantic relations demands (a) upholding strong ties and mutual commitments in defense, trade, and foreign policy while (b) reducing Europe’s dependence on the U.S.

It seems unlikely that Donald Trump or future presidents will put the old case for U.S. leadership in the world, and especially in Europe, to the American people again. It is therefore time for Europe to grow up and strengthen its own diplomatic, military and trade capabilities. While it may be tempting for some (especially left-wing European parties or governments) to respond to the present U.S. administration by disengaging from transatlantic cooperation, this would only deepen the gulf between the two sides – and create divisions in Europe as well. The only beneficiaries would be Vladimir Putin’s Russia and other parts of the world that seek to weaken the West.

This year will provide further clues whether an adult version of “post-American Europe” (advocated by France since Charles de Gaulle’s presidency) might take shape. Common European foreign, security and defense policies will top the EU’s agenda in coming years. Partly this will be a reaction to U.S. withdrawals under President Trump, including from global trade and climate agreements. But just as much, it will be a response to new challenges in Europe’s neighborhood – such as the immigration crisis, which has spawned the idea of an EU-Africa partnership.

Disagreement and divergence in these and other areas of transatlantic cooperation is nothing new. While American policy toward China, Russia or the Middle East seems to be missing a coherent vision or timetable, the EU lacks the consensus or force capabilities to offer a viable alternative.

European integration’s great challenge (and achievement) has been to pool resources, coordinate efforts and agree on common objectives. These skills are also a prerequisite for a mutually beneficial transatlantic relationship. If the recent cooling in relations with the U.S. enhances Europe’s efforts to develop its own geopolitical resources, without damaging those created over the Atlantic during past decades, it is possible that this emerging “new normal” could even be welcome.

Related reports

Scroll to top