Europe Should Untap the Full Potential of the Transatlantic Relationship

Transatlantic relations have seen better days. It has sometimes been too easy for us Europeans to complain about the Trump administration. But when friends fight, typically both are to blame. Rather than pointing fingers, Europe should seize the opportunity to address current imbalances in transatlantic relations and untapped the full potential of this partnership.

Concerning trade, Europe is of course already a force to be reckoned with. The EU has the largest internal market in the world and a single, unified trade policy. Because of our success at home in eliminating internal tariffs and quotas, we have become a true believer in free and fair, rules-based trade across the world. In recent years, we have stood proudly at the forefront in setting high new global standards.

Our first preference has always been a new multilateral trade regime under the World Trade Organization. Yet with negotiations long stalled — and the urgency of this situation is only highlighted by the paralysis starting in December 2019 of the Appellate Body for resolving disputes — the European Union has not shied away from pursuing ambitious new trade agreements. Since negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) stopped in 2016, the EU has launched talks with Australia and New Zealand, updated our agreement with Mexico and concluded deals with Canada and Japan and Singapore. Major progress has also been made vis-à-vis Vietnam and Mercosur. While we regret the UK’s decision to leave the EU, we look forward now to negotiating a close future partnership with our British friends. The European Union — grounded all the while in basic values like a commitment to defending human rights and to fighting climate change — remains open for business.

This openness includes a renewed desire for closer trade ties, on the other side of the Atlantic, with our American friends — a desire signalled by the agreement signed in July 2018 by Presidents Juncker and Trump as well as by the renewed European Commission mandate given by member states in April 2019. Let’s not forget, after all, EU-US trade accounts for full one third of global GDP and supports 16 million jobs, including 4.6 million for Americans hired by European companies in the US. 54% of foreign investment into the US comes from Europe, including $43.8 billion in R&D. While it is true that the EU maintains a surplus in exchange of goods with the United States, trade in services is nearly equal. And whatever we might hear sometimes about high tariffs — and the US, for instance, imposed new tariffs on several member states this past October after the WTO’s Airbus ruling; and new US tariffs are a possibility following a growing push in Europe for fair digital taxation — let’s also not forget that transatlantic tariffs remain on average less than 3%.

What we should be focusing on, on both sides of the Atlantic, is not the real yet relatively minor disagreements between us, but rather the geopolitical partnership which is only becoming more and more essential. We are very aware of the challenges we face in common, including global terrorism, the threat posed by Iran, and an aggressive Russia which has meddled in elections both in Europe and in the US. Perhaps most of all, a rising China, and a more ambitious China, will require a common and creative new commitment to multilateral institutions which the US and Europe have for decades shaped together and which have on the whole proved invaluable.       

One way the European Union must step up is in defence. Simply put, we in Europe have been living comfortably under the American security umbrella for seven decades. Many Europeans are not aware enough, are not grateful enough, for this. This situation needs to change. Becoming a stronger security partner must start with EU member states. Most EU members are also members of NATO, which remains and must remain our primary collective defence infrastructure. In London this past December, all NATO members re-committed themselves to move towards the 2% target. It is vital that in Europe we stick to this commitment. This means, in many cases, significantly accelerating our defence spending — not just in absolute terms, as our economies continue to grow, but in relative terms as well. In some countries, this of course is not politically easy. But it must be done; we need to do much more.

The EU has presented an important framework which can help member states towards this goal. Through Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, formalized in December 2017, 25 EU member states have agreed to work jointly on various defence projects, thereby getting more bang for their buck. The European Defence Agency helps to advise member states on these projects, ensuring money is not wasted. A critical further step Europe can take will be agreeing on the Multiannual Financial Framework for the 2021-2027 cycle. For the first time, the EU budget will have a specific chapter dedicated to security and defence, with a large part of this budget going to the European Defence Fund, making the EU one of the top four R&D investors in defence in Europe.

President Trump has long pointed out how important it is that European countries bear their fair share of the burden when it comes to common defence. We agree. Europe has taken and must continue to take important steps towards becoming a stronger and more equal security and defence partner to the United States.

Finally, a word about common values. The EU and the US share a fundamental commitment to rule of law and democracy and to basic freedoms and human rights. We can easily take this for granted. And yet one does not have to venture far beyond our borders to appreciate anew the meaning of these principles. We have been entrusted with freedom; it is ours, as citizens and as leaders, to preserve and strengthen. And the world around us is challenging us: in the form of political or cybersecurity threats to our media landscapes, and in a growing authoritarianism in many places.

We in the EPP will always defend democracy and freedom against those who would destroy them. We are glad the EU is pursuing greater tools to help us in this, for instance in the form of sanctions against individual officials found to have committed blatant human rights violations: the EU equivalent, essentially, to America’s ‘Magnitsky Act’. I and the EPP have long called for such sanctions, for example, against cronies of the brutal dictator Nicolás Maduro. The EU last September added several individuals to its target list, and in November it renewed for another year the restrictive measures against this group and against the Maduro government’s ability to continue to repress the Venezuelan people.

This is yet one more area where the EU and the US can make common cause, not only with regards to Venezuela but more generally where basic human freedom and democracy are at stake: to send common messages to our friends as well as adversaries and to help in achieving common desired outcomes in the world. This is yet one more way Europe can play a greater role. And one more way Europe can become a more equal American partner.

The European People’s Party, the largest force and the strongest centre-right force in European politics, is as committed as ever to deepening our transatlantic ties. As we have seen, they are more vital and more enduring than any tweet.

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Secretary General of the European People’s Party – Spanish member of the European Parliament with the EPP Group