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Europe at the Helm of a New Transatlantic Agenda

ARTICLES - 22 October 2020

The world order seems to have come to a standstill in anticipation of the upcoming US election, waiting for the outcome that will dictate which direction geopolitics will take. In his latest policy paper for Institut Montaigne, our Special Advisor Michel Duclos elaborates why Europe should be doing the exact opposite of waiting. This is the moment for European leaders to turn the tables and make Europe a driving force behind the future transatlantic relationship. France and Germany, and possibly the UK, will have an important part to play in this new dynamic. What are their different stakes? 

The American presidential election should be a call for Europeans to "take their destiny into their own hands", as Angela Merkel had said as early as May 28, 2017, the day after the G7 in Taormina.

If the current President of the United States is re-elected on November 3, he will feel all the more legitimized to go through with his strategy of trade war with Europe and of weakening the European Union and possibly NATO. If Biden wins, the scenario will be very different — at least on the surface. His first international concern will be to repair the United States’ traditional alliances. 

There is also the risk in the event of a Biden administration that Europe falls asleep, imagining it had returned to the tranquillity of yesteryear, in which the American superpower took care of everything. 

Biden’s arrival at the White House will be welcomed in Europe with all the more enthusiasm as his administration will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization and, under certain conditions, the nuclear agreement with Iran (JCPOA). 

But would this honeymoon last? There are no guarantees. After all, most of Obama's presidential tenure was marked by a profound indifference of the US administration towards European interests. 

Furthermore, regardless of who wins the election on November 3, the United States now has its eye turned towards China — and Asia more generally — and is less interested in Europe and the Middle East. Protectionist impulses are now shared by the entire American political class. The desire to limit foreign military commitments also transcends political divisions in Washington. 

There is also the risk in the event of a Biden administration that Europe falls asleep, imagining it had returned to the tranquillity of yesteryear, in which the American superpower took care of everything. 

In fact, whatever happens on November 3, Europe should move to demonstrate its relevance in the eyes of the United States and its clout in world affairs. It is up to Europe to be proactive. 

We suggest that in the aftermath of the presidential election, Europe should develop a "common strategic offer" vis-à-vis the US — a defensive offer in the event of Trump's re-election, and on the contrary, a positive one, if the Democratic ticket wins the vote. 

What issues should this "common offer" address? The time has come to broaden the "agenda" of the transatlantic dialogue. Thus far it has been monopolized by NATO and defense matters. However, without minimizing their importance, there are many more topics to be dealt with between Europe and the United States: China, of course, climate change and biodiversity, Internet governance, the data economy, the reform of the WTO, to name but a few. 

On these topics, a strategic European offer — without concealing the contentious aspects (e.g. taxation of big tech) — should exploit the vast possibilities of cooperation with the United States. These are primarily "geo-economic" subjects for which, it should be noted in passing, it is the EU and not NATO that should be the natural interlocutor of the United States. 

Climate change is a case in point, given the mutual interest in both sides of the Atlantic to shore up large investments towards a green transition and to find common ground on the issue of carbon border adjustments. The policy towards China is another obvious platform for cooperation, since Europe is in the process of consolidating a pushback policy.

France and Germany must work as closely on a European strategic offer to the United States as they did on the European recovery plan, involving the Brussels institutions and all Members-States.

The Biden administration will have to define the modalities of a policy that is not less firm, but more "systemic" than that of Trump. 

With regard to geopolitical crises, it would be in the interest of both sides of the Atlantic that the E3 (Germany, France, the United Kingdom) act on the Iranian dossier during the transition in Washington in order to create optimal conditions for the United States’ return to negotiations. Perhaps a new approach to Russia would also be worth discussing across the Atalantic. 

In order to truly take off, the revised transatlantic relationship must be based on a polyphonic dialogue — the EU, its Member States, NATO with regard to defense issues — that must lead to a variable-geometry conversation with the United States. 

We must not hide from the fact that some major European countries will have a more active role to play than others. Germany is now in the forefront, with the Covid-19 crisis further strengthening its position in Europe. It is also a major trading partner of China. It is likely to Germany that a Biden administration would turn first and foremost in Europe. The Chancellor's personal equation also plays its part. 

As she completes an outstanding political career, Angela Merkel has the needed authority and experience to convince her colleagues to agree at short notice on a "strategic offer" from Europe to the US. If Biden is elected, she will have enough influence in Washington to "sell" this offer to the Americans. This is the time for her to remember her words in Taormina. 

However, the German electoral calendar means that Merkel will leave the political scene in the early months of 2021. The spotlight will thus naturally return to the French president, especially since France will hold the EU presidency in the first half of 2022. Fortunately, the Franco-German tandem regained its cohesion during the Covid-19 crisis management. France and Germany must work as closely on a European strategic offer to the United States as they did on the European recovery plan, involving the Brussels institutions and all Members-States.

If things go well, we can imagine that a transatlantic summit could be held under French and American co-presidency in early 2022. That would give enough time for proper preparation and could exploit the momentum set up by a "European offer", and the response from a new US administration. Diplomats and decisions-makers would have to reflect on the best format for such an event: a NATO-EU summit? Or two back-to-back summits (Nato and then EU-US)? 

In any case, it should be the opportunity to adopt a major political declaration. Such a document should support the expanded agenda of transatlantic dialogue mentioned above and endorse the contribution of a "sovereign Europe" to such an agenda. After all, let’s face it: it is by endorsing a sovereign Europe today that the US can renew the support to the European project it had committed to at the onset of the European Community.

What about the third "Great European", the United Kingdom? As long as the Brexit negotiations have not come to a close, it will not be possible to associate the UK with a European approach, except within the E3 framework, which only applies to the Iran dossier. However, it is clear that for London, the US presidential election presents considerable dilemmas. Furthermore, the United Kingdom, especially if Biden is the next President of the United States, can no longer rely on its traditional role as intermediary between the United States and Europe. It can choose however, especially if Trump is re-elected, to play a nuisance role in the relationship between the EU and the United States. 

Let us instead consider an optimistic hypothesis: if the Franco-German tandem works well and the United States is receptive to a "European offer", the United Kingdom would have an interest in playing a positive role in an updated transatlantic agenda. This could even be a ground for reconciliation between Great Britain and continental Europe after the acrimony of divorce. 

 

Copyright: Ian LANGSDON / POOL / AFP

 

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