TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONS: America and Europe must stay in tandem
Louis Michel

2 February 2004

The past year has been a particularly difficult one for transatlantic relations. It should be a top priority for both sides to revitalise the partnership. Several concrete steps could be taken by both the United States and the European Union. They should, however, be based upon lessons learnt from recent events.

The war in Iraq divided not only the EU itself, but also created deep rifts between some member countries and the US. At one point, it appeared to some as if a weak and therefore multi-lateralist Europe was forced to give in to an all-powerful and unilateral-minded America. More seriously, the Iraq crisis raised difficult questions about how we should tackle the challenges and threats of the 21st century. Some quarters see Europe and America going down separate paths. However, I believe they should stay in tandem.

The transatlantic relationship remains an asset of the first order. To make it work properly, we have to examine why it stalled and how we can prevent that happening again.

The first reason for the recent transatlantic turbulence has much to do with shifting fundamentals. While the US has long served as the mainstay for stability inside post-war (western) Europe, Europeans themselves are now providing stability across the whole continent. The forthcoming enlargement of the EU is an obvious case in point. Moreover, the US was for a long time the guarantor of last resort against the Soviet threat. That threat is now a thing of the past. Still there is no reason to forsake the old alliance.

Only the US and Europe together can produce the necessary strength and exert the necessary reach to combat terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Together, they can help propagate human rights and good governance. The fact is, what we do together, we do better.

Furthermore, Europe and the US need this transatlantic relationship as an instrument to help settle our differences. As an increasingly integrated Europe produces more unified positions on various issues, a broad diplomatic highway with all necessary markings is needed to direct transatlantic traffic and prevent collisions.

The second reason for transatlantic turbulence stems from the fact we are simply different in many aspects. Although sharing history and principles, there is a "value gap" in that Europe has added a stronger social dimension to political democracy.

The different ways in which both sides approach social solidarity and economic growth also explain our differences on issues ranging from genetically modified crops to development aid and environmental policy.

Then there is the "power gap". While America, with its military might and security responsibilities, is inclined to set the threshold for direct intervention at a lower level, Europe tends to give more time to negotiations and compromise, an approach that is also at the core of the EU's decision-making process.

To consolidate the transatlantic relationship, we should predicate it on the principles of equal partnership and predictability.

Achieving equality requires strengthening Europe. This is the Europeans' job, but the US can, of course, encourage it. I am confident that, in the end, Washington would prefer a "fellowship" to a "followship".

The European side, meanwhile, should explain clearly that the ultimate goal of the EU is "more Europe" - not "less America". This means that Europe should see itself as a burden-sharing counterpart to the US, not a competing counterweight.

There is a second condition for a strong transatlantic relationship: predictability. The US and the EU know far too little about one another. We often spring surprises and too often entertain unfortunate caricatures of each other.

Complex as the EU's mechanisms may be, the US needs to understand and allow for this in a renewed transatlantic partnership. On the European side, we should correct our simplistic stereotypes about US power and try to achieve a better understanding of the responsibilities the US has to face.

Respecting these principles is vital if we are to build a new transatlantic consensus. To generate badly-needed momentum, dialogue should be intensified at all levels, including between legislators, civil and corporate leaders, think-tanks, media and, above all, youth. Why not, for example, set up a transatlantic version of Europe's Erasmus student exchange program, which provides opportunities for the best and brightest young people?

At the political level there should be daily contacts between Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for common foreign and security policy, and his American counterparts. Both the collective meetings between EU ministers and their US counterparts, as well as the summits of US and EU leaders, should be more focused and results-oriented.

At such high-level meetings, we should identify strategic objectives on core issues such as the Middle East peace process, Russia, Africa and the fight against terrorism, possibly to achieve common strategies, as we do within the EU. And we should also agree on the means to achieve these objectives.

The grounds of our transatlantic partnership may have shifted and we may still be different, but the added value remains intact. We should focus on concrete ways to build on that.

Louis Michel is Belgium's Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Reprinted with permission from The Financial Times.