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Fireproofing US-European ties

Key issues require enhanced engagement from Congress and the administration with EU counterparts

The United States and its counterparts in Europe have a small window to coordinate on key issues, writes Bruce Stokes.
The United States and its counterparts in Europe have a small window to coordinate on key issues, writes Bruce Stokes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

2023 is shaping up as a year of both challenges and opportunities for American relations with Europe.

We share a stake in the uncertain direction of the war in Ukraine, the growing competition with China, the regulatory imperative of the digital economy and the existential threat posed by climate change. To deal with all of this, as Benjamin Franklin once observed: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

But the window of opportunity to work together on these issues will narrow by 2024, with the U.S. presidential and congressional elections coinciding with the end of the terms of both the European Commission and European Parliament that year.

To make progress on shared trans-Atlantic challenges and to fireproof U.S.-European relations against destabilizing developments come 2025, the Biden administration and Congress need to take the initiative now to make the commitment to and to develop a framework for working more closely with European allies.

No one can predict the trajectory of the Ukraine war. But it is clear that public reluctance to continue financial support for Ukraine, and the even more costly rebuilding of that war-torn nation, is only likely to grow on both sides of the Atlantic. Maintaining that support will require deeper engagement by members of Congress and the European Parliament, who ultimately will have to convince their taxpayers and voters.

Both the European and American publics are increasingly wary of China. And Beijing’s threatened actions against Taiwan would disrupt the global economy. Washington and Brussels have a strategic dialogue on China. But it lacks legislative input. And the coordination of economic sanctions — as witnessed by trans-Atlantic friction over the Biden administration’s semiconductor export controls — demonstrates the need for closer cooperation.

The digital economy is clearly the future, but it is plagued by disputes over privacy and competition policy. The U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council was established to, in part, deal with these issues. While the group has focused on coordination of Russian export controls and made some progress on issues like AI and supply chain collaboration, it lacks strong institutional grounding or congressional oversight that might give it longevity.

And trans-Atlantic frictions are only growing over how to deal with climate change. The Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies for made-in-America electric vehicles has sparked European threats of retaliation.

The European Union’s recent approval of a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism — a tax based on the carbon content of certain imports — will undoubtedly lead to an American backlash.

Washington and Brussels have agreed to talks to try to resolve both these issues, but they are ad hoc efforts. There will be more such climate-policy-related frictions. Congress and the administration need to find a way to build a regular channel for resolving differences over how best to slow climate change in which all interested parties can have their say in a timely fashion.

NATO has been invigorated as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No deepening of coordination seems needed in the security relationship.  But with regard to the rebuilding of Ukraine, relations with China, climate change and the digital economy, it is the U.S. relationship with the EU that will be pivotal. 

In the face of these growing challenges and those that will arise from a changing geopolitical global order, it is time for the U.S. and the EU to strengthen EU-U.S. cooperation, building on the 1995 New Transatlantic Agenda and the 2021 Joint Transatlantic Agenda.

To that end, the EU and the U.S. should agree at the U.S.-EU summit this summer to develop a 21st century Transatlantic Partnership framework by their 2024 summit and commit to a road map for achieving their goals by 2030.

Trans-Atlantic bridge building requires broad stakeholders. Business and civil society engagement will be critical in this effort. To that end, the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and related dialogues with labor, consumers and environmental stakeholders should be reconstituted, with newly focused agendas and timely deliverables to government officials. 

To ensure that a strong EU-U.S. Partnership has broad political support, Congress and the European Parliament must be engaged from the beginning. As a first step, the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue should have official status in Congress.

This enhanced engagement with the political community should point toward creation of a Transatlantic Assembly, comparable to NATO’s North Atlantic Assembly, to provide a shared platform for congressional and parliamentary involvement as U.S.-EU relations deepen.

In 1990, the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the European Union issued a Transatlantic Declaration to address the challenges in a world transformed by the end of the Cold War.

A 21st century Transatlantic Partnership framework is now needed to revitalize such cooperation in the face of the digital, environmental and strategic challenges facing both Europe and America, starting with a strengthened Transatlantic Declaration.

This time Congress has to play a bigger role.

Bruce Stokes is a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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