Argument

How to Kick-Start a New Trans-Atlantic Era

The European Union’s foreign minister explains his vision for a new U.S.-Europe partnership for the next four years.

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks on relations with the United States during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels on Nov. 11, 2020.
High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks on relations with the United States during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Brussels on Nov. 11, 2020. YVES HERMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Go through the alternatives and anyone can see: No other pair on the international stage can match the partnership between the European Union and the United States. Neither Europe nor America will find a major partner that is more aligned and more powerful. After a rocky four years, it is time for a fresh start. The election of Joe Biden as U.S. president gives us the chance to make it happen.

This does not mean we will always agree or that we have identical interests. That was not the case before President Donald Trump, and it will not be under Biden. What we do have is an enduring partnership, based on shared values and decades of experience of working together. The past four years have been difficult. And there are underlying reasons—demographic, economic, and political—why the historical trajectory of the United States and Europe could well diverge.

But we appreciate that at least for the next four years there will be a U.S. president who believes in partnership with democratic allies. And we don’t just feel appreciation for this restoration; we recognize its necessity. As the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, my message is clear: Europe wants to make the most of this opportunity. And we come not just with wishes and demands, but also with offerings.

There is much to repair and even more to build together. Both the United States and the EU struggle with polarization and societal divisions at home. Abroad, we see autocrats and other political disruptors undermining regional security and global order. We have a pandemic raging, a global climate crisis, a European neighborhood in flames, and fierce competition over who will write the rules of the digital age.

What is striking is that our capacity to find solutions has not kept pace with the speed and scope of change. Time, in politics, is relative. As in physics, it depends on your own speed: If the world is changing faster than your capacity to cope, then in relative terms you go backward. This we cannot afford.

President-elect Biden has underlined the key role he sees for a close partnership between the United States and the EU. Europe has its own ideas for an ambitious trans-Atlantic agenda. Now we need to translate the positive mood into concrete action. To this end, the European Commission has proposed a “New EU-US Agenda for Global Change” with joint action to focus on COVID-19, the recovery, climate change, technology, trade and standards, and strengthening democracy around the world. EU foreign ministers discussed the future of EU-U.S. relations at their meeting on Dec. 7 and collectively underlined their desire for a scaled-up common agenda that covers the full policy spectrum.

For now, I want to focus on foreign and security policy and underline three points.

First, the U.S. role in European security is indispensable. At the same time, we Europeans need to look more after our own security. Hence, we are fully engaged to strengthen European defense capabilities and our operational engagement. We have today 17 crisis management operations and missions from the Western Balkans, to Ukraine, to the Sahel and beyond. And we are investing through various EU defense initiatives into acquiring the capabilities we need.

It is a distraction to debate—mostly in abstract terms—whether we should go either “European” or “trans-Atlantic,” when these are clearly flip sides of the same coin. This is also why we should continue with our work on strategic autonomy: A strong and capable Europe is not a rival to the trans-Atlantic alliance but a precondition for it. We need concrete steps both to enhance our capacity to act and to become more resilient in strategic domains.

So let’s put abstract debates to bed and focus on the substance. When it comes to European security, we will need to act together, to bring the whole Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic structures; support Ukrainian sovereignty and reform; develop a robust and consistent approach to Russia; and prevent a further drifting away by Turkey. In all these cases, I see a compelling need for the EU and the United States to work in lockstep, because we can only succeed if we act together.

Additionally, on its periphery Europe is also facing a number of conflicts and tensions, for example in the Sahel, in Libya, and in the Eastern Mediterranean. In those three cases, Europe must be ready to take the lead, as these problems concern Europe more directly than the United States.

Secondly, we know that the rise and growing assertiveness of China and the related competition with the United States will shape the global landscape. Some of the challenges that China represents we should discuss together even if we will not always agree, from persistent asymmetries on market access, to legitimate questions about 5G, to Beijing’s attempts to push for rival standards in multilateral organizations and weaken collective action on human rights. The new EU-U.S. dialogue on China will provide a key mechanism for advancing our interests and managing our differences.

The EU is ready to engage and work for a balanced approach, combining areas of cooperation with China such as climate change where its role as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide is essential, with pushback where needed. We see China, depending on the policy area, as a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival. We are clear that with the United States we share a democratic political system, based on fundamental values. This means that we are not equidistant between the United States and China. At the same time, the depth of Europe’s trade and investment links with China is such that we have no interest in a strategy of decoupling.

All this should be combined with an active EU approach to the wider Indo-Pacific region working with democratic partners in Asia. One of the most prominent features of EU policymaking in and with Asia has been the strengthening of ties with Japan (including the Economic Partnership Agreement last year, linking two of the world’s largest economies); with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (including the launch of a formal strategic partnership this month, overcoming the impasse on palm oil); and with India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, many like-minded partners tell us they want to see more EU engagement. Like us, they want to keep the regional order open and rules-based, avoiding closed blocs and binary choices.

Thirdly, we need to find a way for the United States to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and for Iran to come back into full compliance. The nuclear deal still stands as a landmark of successful diplomacy. We have worked hard to preserve it, and it has delivered clear benefits. Thanks to the agreement, the Iranian nuclear program is still far below the level before the pact was agreed. But the nuclear deal has clearly come under enormous pressure. The departure of the United States dramatically reduced the expected economic benefits for Iran, which is why the deal could never develop its full potential. The EU and the United States should prioritize ways to ensure the deal is fully implemented by all, thus also rebuilding trust among all. Once this is achieved, we must be ready to build on this success and find ways to address further regional security concerns. I am convinced that the only long-term solution for the chronic instability is a regional solution.

Of course, there are many other foreign-policy issues and priorities. But let us focus on these three, using them to kick-start the engine of trans-Atlantic cooperation. The further we go, the more ambitious we can become.

Josep Borrell is High Representative of the European Union.

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