REVIEW: Article

The Transatlantic Relationship: Our Best Bet

Depending on who you talk to these days, the mere mention of the "Transatlantic Relationship” can conjure up quite contrasting mental images that reflect differing takes on the subject. There are those who think of it fondly as something tried and tested, synonymous with stability and endurance, “ties that bind;” for others it is well past its sell-by date, now that the Cold War freezer has been unplugged. Many immediately think “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” (NATO) rather than United States-European Union (US-EU). Whilst some equate it with endless trade disputes over bananas or steel others recognize its enormous mutual economic benefits. The saga over Iraq has undoubtedly focused minds on it and so much the better as there is always a danger of something unravelling if it is taken for granted. Rather like a bicycle, it’s something you need to keep riding or else you lose your balance and take a fall.

The Transatlantic Relationship cannot and should not be taken for granted, and it’s possible that we are all guilty of this since the end of the Cold War. Ironically it may even be more necessary than ever if our increasingly interconnected world is to cope with the extraordinary challenges that face it. Whether it be fighting terrorism, or promoting trade and economic growth, or resolving ancient enmities that get in the way of social and economic progress, or dealing with AIDS, no two partners are better equipped than Europe and America, or more compatible for the task. As our Commissioner for External Relations Chris Patten put it:

“Most of the things we want to achieve as Europeans, we are likely to be able to achieve if we are able to work with the United States. It is equally the case that most of the things America wants are more likely to be achieved if America can work with the European Union. And finally, it is inarguably the case that the world is better served in terms of prosperity, in terms of security, in terms of stability when America and the European Union work together. So the future of transatlantic relations is a matter of real concern to us all.”

For all the talk of crisis, which certainly seemed relevant in the run up to the Iraq war, I now believe that Europe and America are once again growing closer.  The conflict in Iraq has exposed a rift which may be explained, but not excused by, miscalculations made on both sides. But now that the conflict is over, we must focus on rebuilding Iraq and helping it to become a stable democracy in the Middle East. We have shown in the Madrid Conference on Reconstruction our willingness to play a significant part in the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq. For the effort to be successful, though, we believe it is necessary to have a strong and vital United Nations (UN) role, a realistic schedule for the handing over of political responsibility to the Iraqi people and a transparent multilateral donor fund to channel support from the international community. A prosperous, stable and sovereign Iraq, whose territorial integrity is preserved, will be essential for the stability in the region and beyond.

Indeed, Iraq is only part of a regional jigsaw that also includes Israel, Palestine, Syria and Iran, once referred to as the “Near East” because of its proximity not to the US but to Europe and of enormous consequent significance to the EU. Here, the EU and the US must discharge a joint responsibility to bring peace and stability to the region. We have been working together to achieve this say over the Peace Process in the context of the Quartet and based upon the commonly agreed Road Map. Though the road is proving longer than we would like and those most closely concerned seem to be having quite some trouble with their map-reading, rather like the North in a compass, we must bring our joint weight to bear on them in order to ensure they do not stray from the path and reach the desired destination as quickly as possible.

EU-US relations will also receive a welcome boost when, in May 2004, the European Union welcomes ten new members. Whilst it will have taken time, incorporating some 80 million new EU citizens is no mean feat—for those entering and for the EU itself. It will also be the realization of a dream that in the dark days of the Iron Curtain may have seemed inconceivable to all but the most idealistic. Enlargement will be great news for America on so many levels: in political terms, it confirms the status of these countries as fully-functioning modern democracies; in economic terms, the US is a “free rider” that will be able to export its goods and services to a market of 450 million people using and benefiting from the same rules and guarantees that apply to the current 15….and all of this for free!

Most if not all of the new member states have considerable “constituencies” in the United States where many of their citizens came to live and indeed become American. Those with family ties in Central Europe will be able to take pride in seeing their respective “auld countries” joining the European Union. That can only generate renewed interest in and curiosity as to what the European Union is all about, well beyond the Washington Beltway, broadening and deepening the quality of the transatlantic relation-ship as a consequence.

Earlier this year, all the talk was about “Old Europe,” a concept that served as a vehicle to vent American frustration with the opposition of a number of European countries and US allies, to the war with Iraq. But a closer examination may suggest that it is Europe that is undergoing a process of serious renewal, taking further steps to pool sovereignty and increase our interdependence whilst the US is content to rely on things the way they are. America’s Constitution is over two hundred years old! Having been at it barely half a century, EU integration, young and new by comparison, has already radically transformed the continent. Since the 1950s, the EU has made incredible strides forward—creating a single market, launching a single currency, and only now is getting around to the important job of writing a European Constitution! In that sense, the “old Europe” label smacks of outdated perceptions about Europe.

The new European Constitution will hopefully be concluded by the end of this year. It is a far-reaching overhaul of how Europe defines itself and how its common institutions in the EU framework will function. Pat Cox, the President of the European Parliament, hit the nail on the head when he said:

“The task we are undertaking is on a continental scale. With this vast panorama, we will not succeed in driving towards our common European future by constantly gazing in the rear-view mirror. We will only reach our goal with the will to succeed.”

And succeed we must.

Of course no assessment of transatlantic relations should ever underestimate the enormous importance and benefits we undoubtedly derive from the economic dimension—more than $3 billion a day in trade of goods, services and foreign direct investment across the Atlantic. Trade still is the lifeblood of the EU and US economies. Sixty percent of all Foreign Direct Investment in the United States comes from Europe, whilst the US invests more in the Netherlands alone than it does in Mexico every year! For all the talk of Asia, the Pacific and Latin America, California, the world’s fifth largest economy, has as its main trading partner and foreign investor, not Japan, nor China but the good old EU! Of course, Europeans and Americans don’t invest in each other just to feel good about the transatlantic relationship—we do it because it’s smart business and profitable for us both. We do it because we know and trust each other, we feel comfortable doing business with each other. But we shouldn’t underestimate the work that goes on behind the scenes by leaders on both sides to ensure the “economic glue” remains strong and when the relationship comes under inevitable periodic strain, we work out ways to share and lighten the load. As we account for almost 50 percent of world trade, we have the added responsibility of promoting a healthy global trading environment. Whilst our joint efforts in the World Trade Organization (WTO) received a significant setback in Cancun, this should not detract from the recognition of the considerable work we have done together in the last two years to get the WTO show back on the road after the Seattle pile-up.

The very fact that we have our differences is a direct reflection of our high degree of interdependence: when the US makes moves to overhaul its accounting standards, it does not do so in a vacuum as any decisions can have serious implications in Europe; when the US takes decisions designed to bolster Homeland Security again this can have a serious impact in the EU. And the EU is big and important enough to register such concerns. It’s up to us then to jointly work out mutually acceptable arrangements, be it over Passenger Name Records or Container Security, that safeguard legitimate US concerns without putting the EU or individual EU countries in impossible situations. That may mean resisting the urge to rush to take remedial action without first putting ourselves in the other’s shoes and factoring that in.

It is inevitable then that the more European the EU becomes, the more European it is expected to be. There is undoubtedly a growing desire for the EU to assert itself and strengthen its role on the international stage in a manner that is commensurate with its size and economic power. For years, the US has said Europe must get its act together. But when the EU does just that, this cannot mean that it will automatically mirror a US point of view or approach. As in any partnership, complementarity is the key. The question of the EU’s relationship with NATO is an example. As the EU’s High Representative and former NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, put it:

“We are determined to give ourselves the means to act decisively when and where needed, in close cooperation with NATO. All this is good news for the US. We are not talking about a zero-sum game; we want more Europe, not less America.”

In conclusion, to those that say “the transatlantic relationship is not what is used to be,” I say, the transatlantic relationship is not yet what it could be. It is with a real and equal transatlantic partnership that we will make the most progress on the issues confronting us on the global front—whether it be stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, fighting terrorism, addressing the problems of the Middle East, strengthening the multilateral trading system through the Doha Development Round or combating killer diseases in Africa. 

Like democracy, the transatlantic relationship is not perfect, but for all its limitations and irritations, it is undoubtedly our best mutual bet.

Issue Date


Head of the European Commission Delegation to the United States