By Pablo García-Berdoy*
Let me first thank the German Marshall Fund for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts on how I see the state of things in this new period of the relationship between the US and the EU. I am in leave of absence from the diplomatic service, so all opinions here expressed are only mine.
My credentials for talking about TR are limited. I have not dealt with the issue on a regular basis. My diplomatic activity both in Madrid and in Ambassadorial posts has focused on internal EU affairs and crisis management. My last job as COREPER Ambassador was constrained by the urgencies of Europe’s crisis. From 2016 onwards, there was not a single quiet moment, and I could not enjoy the peace of mind of a policy planning staff and the intellectual pleasure of strategic thinking.
In exchange, what my experience has given me is a clear understanding of the political processes within the EU, the institutional challenges and the dynamics of our decision making. Brexit, Migration, Economic and Financial Policies, Health and Budgetary discussions were in the forefront of my daily tasks these last years.
Why then, daring to talk about this subject that so many and so capable experts have touched extensively?
First, I have come to this territory after a somehow accidental analysis of the transatlantic cooperation in the field of sanctions. The war in Ukraine and the response to it has underlined the need to better use this important foreign policy instrument. The EU capacities, more limited than the US, must be reinforced not only to increase the strategic autonomy of Europe but to make the sanctions a useful instrument of our transatlantic cooperation and a much more efficient FP tool.
But the logic of going from sanctions to a reflection about the general framework of the EU/US cooperation, does not come from a functionalist approach. My point of departure is the assessment that the world instability is related to a perceived weakness of our Transatlantic Partnership after some years of neglect or even hostility.
I do have to remind here one of my first experiences regarding Transatlantic Relations. I am now going back to the year 1995, when during the Spanish Presidency of the EU we were able to deliver the so called New Transatlantic Agenda. A partly flawed attempt to stabilize the relation through a combination of institutional and target setting that could have opened the door to a solid and permanent cooperation on global issues. I still remember some conversations with the US Ambassador to the EU, Stuart Eizenstat, who was a key contributor to the NTA.
Those years of the Clinton Administration were no doubt most encouraging. But things went not so well afterwards for many reasons. It would be easy, and I think wrong, blaming one or the other, attributing responsibilities to a particular administration or policies. It is not my intention today to dwell on what happened and why it happened. If I mention the NTA is to frame the future not to cry over the past.
Many things have changed since 1995. There is a general impression that the geostrategic interest has switched to the Pacific. It is interesting to see how even in this globalized and digital world, people remain attached to geographical indications more than to values and shared interests. So, as if we were in infantry times, a priority is defined by where you are and not by what you are. Trade, technology, investment, security challenges and human relations have become omnipresent. Foreign Policy, not.
But even if you remain attached to geography, one must count on your global partners. In search of likeminded it was obvious that at the end of the day, when dealing with China, the US had no more relevant partner than Europe. The same can be said at the other side of the Atlantic when talking about security issues for instance. All in all, the drift could not last long once the parties involved understood the need for a global and powerful partner to cope with what is clearly a change of the rapport des forces between nations and, more importantly, between systems.
In the period between the arrival of the new US administration and the beginning of the second invasion of Ukraine, many people in Brussels were excited about recovering the lost partnership with the US. At the same time, and after a successful summit in June last year, there was a prudent approach both in content and forms. We will work on areas of interest, create the TTC, revitalize the Energy Council, etc. Very sensible measures. But all has been done under the premise that we must avoid nostalgia, implying that we cannot go to more happy and previous periods of our Partnership. As the world has changed so has the potential of a renewed TR?
On this side of the Atlantic, the profound changes in the EU have probably not yet been completely assumed. The Hamilton moment of the Next Generation package, the deepening of EU integration and the clear leadership of the European Institutions is a game changer in dealing with the European partners that has strategic consequences. Hopefully the not always innocent off Brussels dialogue will fade away in areas of EU competence, which are increasingly more relevant.
February 2022 might have changed all this, but still one has the feeling that when the war will be over both sides of the Atlantic might be tempted to go back to the old habits. As history has shown, these are clearly insufficient for making a difference in the global governance.
Based on today’s reality I claim that this renewed partnership should be the cornerstone of our capacity to defend our shared Weltanschauung, conscious of the necessary limits of a relation that must reconstruct multilateralism and count on many others for a common project.
Are we already there? Have we done all what it takes?
I do not think so.
I go back to 1995. Experts have scrutinized the agenda and its failures. I am not going to repeat what has been said at the time when the NTA was still a subject of discussion. That was long ago. Later came other attempts, specially the TTIP that failed to create the necessary framework for such a complex and powerful relation.
My position in this respect its clear. We need to do three things as the NTA envisaged:
- Create a regular and solid dialogue at the political level.
- Promote and protect the cooperation between administrations and agencies
- Develop an ambitious program of civil society dialogue and exchanges, taking particular care of the business sector but not only that.
This approach needs intensive care but clever flexibility. It could be done with the help of a Task Force as in 95. A light and bilateral structure able to analyze the development of these three tasks and to propose changes when necessary.
One may argue that the RNTA will find the same problems than its predecessor: the absence of a legally binding structure makes the Agenda dependent on a sustained support of the political elites. The sectorial agreements between administrations do not have the incentives of a vertical top-down structure. Finally, the civil society intervention will only make sense if participants get an added value, either in terms of access, recognition, or other kind of nonquantitative returns.
The analysis of the NTA leads to the conclusion that the radical reduction of the political support, the substantive limits of the cooperation between administrations and agencies and the lack of incentives for the civil society could partly explain its decay. A detailed evaluation of the NTA experience by stakeholders will be necessary.
We have then to see whether the change of the ecosystem gives a more substantial and objective backing. The deeper integration of the European Union, the unprecedented instability in the global affairs, the assertive role of China, the emergence of a fragmented and divisive international society, with competing political and social systems, the need of decisive action against global warming and other environmental related issues, the challenges of the digital economy, are no doubt strong incentives for a sustained political support for this Agenda and consistent technical cooperation between the partners.
What seems clear today -not only because of the TTIP precedent but also having in mind the internal political debates in the US and in some EU Member states – is the need to be cautiously determined.
It can for sure lead to some frustration the fact that we are not starting a Moloch from scratch. But as in previous periods of our respective history have shown, the main driving force for a solid cooperation can be a reasonable and well-equipped institutional arrangement.
It is urgent. And it is necessary.
*Pablo García-Berdoy, Adjunct Professor at American University School of International Service, former Spanish Ambassador to Germany and Ambassador Permanent Representative to the European Union, ex Secretary General of Aspen Institute España. This text was the basis of his remarks delivered at the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC.