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Elections 2020 October 30, 2020

Five big questions as America votes: Europe

By Future Europe Initiative

As part of the Atlantic Council’s Elections 2020 programming, the New Atlanticist will feature a series of pieces looking at the major questions facing the United States around the world as Americans head to the polls.

For the past seven decades, Europe has been the United States’ political, economic, and security partner of first resort. Now, as the transatlantic relationship is challenged by internal and external forces—the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturns, climate change, external pressures from Russia and China, and cracks in the foundational liberal international order that underpins the transatlantic community—the EU and the United States find themselves at a crossroads in the relationship. There are new opportunities for constructive partnership in responding to external threats and promoting further Euro-Atlantic integration in Europe’s neighborhood, but there are also chasms growing around issues of trade and regulation, digital policy, and diverging priorities in defense and investment. These challenges and opportunities have been building for a decade, but the two potential administrations have articulated different approaches to the US-EU relationship even as it remains one of the most consequential partners on the world stage.

Below are the five major questions facing the United States on Europe as the US elections approach, answered by top experts:

How can the United States and the EU start a new administration, either under Biden or Trump, on the right foot? What could be one big win that would build positive momentum in the US-EU relationship?

“US and European leaders need to halt the destructive, mainly Trump-instigated, cycle of self-indulgent posturing driving apart the world’s greatest democratic centers and start working on common global challenges and problems from authoritarian Russia and China.

“A Biden presidency will find it easy to stop treating Europe as a punching bag, a move Europe will gladly reciprocate. A Trump administration could as well, if it so chose (I’m skeptical.)

“Substance will need to follow tone, and swiftly. It may be a tactical mistake to bet all on one big win early. Instead, US and EU/European leaders should recommit to join forces on a set of challenges: the coronavirus, economic stresses, climate change, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s rejectionist aggression, China’s revisionist ambition, Iran, and more. It’s not hard to imagine an early US-EU summit producing agreement along these lines. 

“They should aim even higher: in addition, the United States and EU, joined by other key democracies, could issue a Charter of Principles, a sort of 21st century version of the Atlantic Charter of 1941 that outlined the principles with which Roosevelt and Churchill sought to fight the Second World War. The challenges today are greater, and the principles must be broader and not issued by only two countries. But after years of democratic decline, authoritarian resurgence, and mounting economic and global problems, the democracies have the responsibility to stand up and declare their fundamentals and intentions.”

Daniel Fried, Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and former US ambassador to Poland.

How should the United States and EU work together to counter China?

“The lack of transatlantic coordination on China is one of the greatest missed opportunities of the last years. It is particularly striking as, on many areas, Washington and Europeans share similar concerns regarding China’s behavior. Having the largest integrated single market and a global norms setter, the EU, and its Member States, on its side would be the United States’ key asset in the strategic competition that will dominate the next decades.

“European public opinions have increasingly awakened to the challenge represented by China’s assertiveness, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s attempt at “mask diplomacy” has proven ineffective while Europeans have suffered from the regime’s cover-up of the pandemic.

An October Pew poll shows unprecedented unfavorable views of China in many European countries: 70 percent in France, 85 percent in Sweden, 74 percent in the UK, 71 percent in Germany hold negative opinions. The crisis has underscored the dependency of critical assets (such as masks or medicine) on Chinese supply chains and opened a debate on bringing back key industries.

“This change was already reflected in an official 2019 strategy document, where the European Commission pointed to China as a “systemic rival promoting alternative forms of governance.” While the paper also points to areas of potential cooperation and partnership, the phrase stuck and signaled a change in tone in European capitals. On issues such as trade manipulation, human rights, privacy and data collection, this year European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager announced an initiative to “level the playing field” and control foreign investments receiving state subsidies. Meanwhile, Member States have also started raising concerns over investments, while France and the United Kingdom are conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

“The United States and European countries could work together to build a common front with Asian partners to address trade violations at a multilateral level (which would entail reinvesting the World Trade Organization) and build a common approach to screening foreign investments. Such approach would entail building convergence on issues such as digital regulation and trade. Our differences pale in comparison to the systemic challenge represented by China. Americans will have to accept that a stronger EU defending its own sovereignty is in its advantage, while also not amplifying potential differences in tones and approaches. Europeans will probably not follow a rhetoric of confrontation, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much space for a common agenda. A recurrent EU-US strategic dialogue would help shape that agenda.

“Finally, this strategy will work if it isn’t inward looking. As our economies struggle with the consequences of COVID-19, we must not forget the countries suffering from much higher debt-financing costs, from Africa to the Western Balkans or Central Asia. The United States and Europe should not let Beijing pursue its Belt and Road without offering robust alternatives.”

Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative

In which areas should the United States and Germany work to reconcile their differences to address global challenges and where should they “agree to disagree”?

“In the field of security and defense, Germany and the United States have an interest in reconciling their differences over a number of issues. On one side stand Germany’s attachment to Nord Stream II and Berlin’s tendency to look at the challenge of China’s rise through an economic lens rather than taking seriously its security implications. On the other side stand the US role in destabilizing the architecture of arms control through withdrawing from the Iran deal and not renewing the New START agreement and its neglect of climate change as a global security challenge.

“In order to be able to negotiate over these issues constructively, however, both sides will first have to address the issue of burden sharing. Here they might have to “agree to disagree” but should try hard to move on to a more constructive discussion. If President Trump wins another term, Berlin cannot afford to keep up the increasingly defiant stance it has adopted in response to his 2 percent bullying; nor can it afford to fall back asleep at the wheel out of relief over a Biden presidency. Since it is not at all clear that political circumstances in Germany will allow defense spending to increase to 2 percent of gross domestic product over the next few years, Berlin should instead lobby for a broader transatlantic understanding of what it means to take responsibility for security and defense. For example, it could offer to step up infrastructure contributions to increase military mobility for NATO troops in Europe, make investments in emerging defense technologies to help narrow the transatlantic interoperability gap, and boost support for EU and NATO efforts to turn European countries into more capable defense actors through e.g. joint training and capability cooperation. The arrival of new leaders on both sides of the Atlantic could offer a window of opportunity for such a reframing. This would make it easier to get out of the destructive spiral the US-Germany relationship is in today.”

Sophia Besch, nonresident senior fellow in the Future Europe Initiative

Where will the EU’s push for digital sovereignty take the US-EU relationship in 2020 and beyond?

“In the next year, the transatlantic gulf over digital regulation will widen dramatically, as the European Commission begins to deliver on its promise of digital ‘sovereignty.’ The Commission will introduce legislative proposals to reform the rules governing internet ‘gatekeepers’—large, and almost exclusively American, digital companies that operate platforms such as social networks or app stores.

“According to press reports, current voluntary commitments on content moderation would become mandatory. New responsibilities for content and safety could narrow the immunity from legal liability that platforms enjoy as information intermediaries. A blacklist of forbidden practices in the realms of e-commerce, advertising, marketing of apps, and access to data would be created, along with a greylist of practices requiring regulatory investigation. Also to be proposed is a new competition tool that would enable the Commission’s regulators to intervene in instances of market failure even where consumer harm is not clear-cut.

“Some of these ideas also are being discussed in the US Congress, but US legislators remain fundamentally divided over whether to pursue top-down regulation, in the EU fashion, or to let dynamic market innovation proceed. The US Department of Justice recently filed suit against Google, and a case against Facebook is being readied as well, but these litigation battles could last many years. 

“The EU legislative process, by contrast, advances deliberately but inexorably. 2021 will be remembered as the year that the US government, and US technology companies, began to face up to the challenge of the EU’s new thinking on digital markets.”

Kenneth Propp, nonresident senior fellow in the Future Europe Initiative

How can Europe and the United States build a sustainable transatlantic agenda across the flashpoints on Europe’s borders, such as the Eastern Med and Western Balkans?

“The Eastern Mediterranean is seeing heightened tensions over maritime claims and regional conflicts that threaten NATO’s cohesion and the security of the wider region. Stabilization is key to preserving American interests in an era of great power competition, vital for Europe’s Mediterranean countries, and critical to the security of the European Union in view of continued migration pressures. A common understanding of the Eastern Mediterranean’s geopolitical importance is the first step to addressing these challenges, which require increased security and diplomatic alert during these unstable times.

“A forward-looking transatlantic agenda for the region could take inspiration from the better-defined framework for cooperation in the Western Balkans. Rather than integration in the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the main vehicle for filling the power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean is regional cooperation. The US National Security Strategy focuses on strengthening its allies in the region by supporting energy and security partnerships among them to promote peace and prosperity. It has already contributed to building economic efficiencies and side-stepping some old enmities. The EU has similar tools in its Neighborhood Policy, as one of its priorities is also centered on connectivity, energy cooperation, and the environment. Another is strengthening institutions and good governance. Yet given the high stakes for the West, the single uncompromising value that the United States and Europe should insist upon is respect for international law: Even as they reward good neighborly relations, they should also target unilateral actions that infringe upon the sovereign rights of others—including through economic sanctions.”

Katerina Sokou, nonresident senior fellow in the Future Europe Initiative

“Europe and the United States need to engage with all allies and partners on the frontier of Europe to establish a more cooperative, productive, and sustainable transatlantic agenda in the context of an increasingly uncertain global geopolitical environment. Turkey, a NATO ally and EU accession country has had a fraught relationship with Europe and the United States in recent years which has harmed transatlantic cohesion. At the same time, Turkey’s importance to European security and stability, at NATO’s southeastern flank, has become all the more apparent since the beginning of the war in Syria and ensuing refugee crisis, and it shares many of the same concerns as its NATO allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia. One emerging area of discord is the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey has felt ignored and sidelined. Europe and the United States need to advocate for all parties, including Turkey, to cooperate, find solutions, and in doing so, strengthen transatlantic solidarity.”

Defne Arslan is the Istanbul-based Director of Atlantic Council IN TURKEY.

“It’s a common refrain among Balkans experts that nothing gets done in the region unless the United States and its European partners are on the same page. The root cause of that is that leaders of these small countries are quite adept at balancing between sides when there is visible daylight between them. 

“It’s also a commonplace that without US leadership, the Western Balkans tend to stagnate, despite the best intentions of Europeans tasked with working on the region.

“The Trump administration showed that energetic US engagement can yield tangible results on the ground. It also learned that without its allies on board, these results prove to be fleeting and much smaller in scope than they otherwise would be. 

“Whoever wins in November needs to internalize both of these realities: America needs to lead on the Western Balkans, and it needs to bring its European allies along. It’s no small task to achieve both of these things at once. But it must be tried.”

Damir Marusic, nonresident senior fellow in the Future Europe Initiative

Related Experts: Daniel Fried, Benjamin Haddad, Sophia Besch, Kenneth Propp, Katerina Sokou, Defne Arslan, and Damir Marusic

Image: FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 19, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo