Summary of the town hall “Navigating Economic Uncertainty” at the 2012 Annual Members’ Conference.

H.E. João Vale de Almeida, Head of Delegation of the European Union to the United States
Moderated by Dr. Gillian Tett,* Assistant Editor and Columnist, Financial Times

Europe’s ongoing sovereign debt crisis continues to cause economic uncertainty throughout the Atlantic community. This uncertainty is not just cause for concern in Europe. As the United States tries to move from frail recovery to robust growth, economic weakness from its largest economic partner could tip it back into recession. To explore the economic uncertainty plaguing Europe, the Atlantic Council convened H.E. João Vale de Almeida, Head of Delegation of the European Union to the United States, and Atlantic Council member Dr. Gillian Tett of the Financial Times for an interview at its Fourth Annual Members’ Conference. Their conversation offered the following key takeaways:

Economic uncertainty has gone hand-in-hand with political uncertainty, but European leaders are addressing both problems. Over the last four years, economic obstacles and complicated political dynamics in Europe have fed off of each other. The situation is changing as Europe’s leaders have shown they are committed to the euro and the European project’s success. In fact they are making politically difficult decisions now that will lead to economic growth in the next couple of years.  

Real progress is occurring in Europe despite its messy, chaotic circumstances. While the crisis has been economically and politically painful, it has forced Europe’s leaders to make difficult, but necessary, decisions. These decisions might not come when outside forces, such as markets, demand them. Different political realities within the EU’s twenty-seven separate states make progress more dependent on political timing than any other factor, and crisis is Europe’s way of moving forward. When leaders are confronted with the costs of failure, they make the difficult political decisions necessary for the European project’s survival.

Public support is crucial if the European project is to ultimately succeed, and the European public needs a new narrative to rally behind. Peace, democracy, and freedom were the original drivers of postwar European integration, but today’s citizens need a new rallying cry. Europe’s political leaders know that a deeper union is the best way Europe can stay relevant in a globalized economy. Politicians must be willing to defend a united Europe with a global purpose to their constituents at home, but they must also give citizens a greater voice in EU governance. Political accountability and transparency must also accompany more transfers of national sovereignty. If voters are not personally invested in Europe’s future, they may choose simple answers to the complex issues they face.

Despite Europe’s political and economic challenges, it remains the United States’ leading global partner. Europe’s pace of progress is may be frustrating for its Atlantic partners, and working together in times of crisis is certainly not easy. In many ways US leaders have a much better idea of how Europe works due to the crisis itself. While a positive, working partnership may require the United States to get used to Europe’s slower pace, it knows that Europe can, and ultimately will, deliver on its commitments