A Danger of Muddling Through
The recent EU-US summit offered an excellent opportunity for the transatlantic partners to show that they can develop joint solutions to global challenges. The agenda certainly presented no shortage of opportunities, as the content of the summit’s communiqué reflected. Those gathered could have agreed on an ambitious approach to new technologies, next steps for industrial defense cooperation, a path for preventing the reintroduction of trade tariffs, or a common policy for the wars and other crises to the EU’s east and south. The summit instead produced no agreement on any of these vital issues.
The outcome of many international summits can often be seen as a glass half full or half empty. But in this case progress was overshadowed by defining, yet unresolved, questions about the future of the transatlantic relationship. This is particularly true for trade and technology, areas that impact daily life. The communiqué notes that the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), really a format to outcompete China by harmonizing standards, is a “key forum” that is achieving progress, but its solutions are technical and granular. They represent no big, tangible breakthroughs for the public. The TTC has also offered no options for boosting green technologies and diversifying supply chains, and a deal on a Global Arrangement for Sustainable Steel and Aluminium or a Critical Minerals Agreement continues to elude the transatlantic partners as well. Geo-economics, however, is, as one observer notes, “driving the transatlantic relationship”, and divergence in this area could have damaging consequences. A worst-case scenario could even see the re-introduction of Trump-era tariffs on European aluminum and steel, currently only suspended, in January 2024.
The summit’s “accomplishments” on European defense are also deceptive. At a critical time for European security, a mere seven lines in the communiqué offered only standard wording on European defense. There was an acknowledgement of the EU’s complementary role to NATO, but this only repeats an earlier EU-NATO declaration. It provided nothing new. The absence of a stronger US endorsement of EU efforts in security and defense reveals Washington’s unwillingness to recognize the bloc as a geopolitical actor despite its valuable economic and military support for Ukraine. Such an acknowledgement needs to be balanced with a renewed commitment to NATO, of course, but the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that both are compatible. In fact, a stronger EU only benefits NATO. For medium- and long-term strategies, the summit also missed a chance to deliberate joint approaches to burden-sharing, particularly when multiple crises arise, an increasingly likely scenario. The absence of any relevant discussion about this places EU-US defense cooperation firmly in reactive mode instead of providing visionary thinking.
One reason for all the lack of progress is division within the EU. The bloc needs to speak with one voice, but European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s and European Council President Charles Michel’s separate meetings with US President Joe Biden sent a signal that damaged EU credibility as a global player. And the United States is not blameless. Washington’s tendency to approach most challenges primarily through the lens of competition with China, while often criticizing the EU’s complex legislation and standards, makes it difficult for European policymakers to find common ground with their American counterparts. That de-risking seems to be, at least on paper, an approach on which the transatlantic partners can agree, however, gives Europeans hope. Washington seems to be acquiring a growing recognition of European priorities.
Still, the summit exposed the major weakness of the transatlantic relationship. The partners seem unable to deliver joint solutions to the challenges that will shape the future and have a direct impact on the public. These challenges also include economic growth and addressing the climate crisis. But even here questions about dealing with artificial intelligence and its impacts remain unanswered, and EU and US regulations for climate-friendly technologies continue to diverge. Even at the UN, the transatlantic partners do not come together. Their disparate voting on the recently adopted General Assembly resolution for a humanitarian truce between Israel and Hamas revealed their different approaches to acute global challenges. Given all the disagreement and lowest-common-denominator approaches, EU and US aspirations to jointly shape future global governance initiatives ring hollow.
The lack of progress in recent years in key areas of EU-US relations is also reflected in perceptions of their importance. Despite coordinated transatlantic action on Ukraine, it is unsurprising that young Europeans, in particular, are not “transatlanticists by default”. They hold less-positive views about the United States and see it as less powerful than their elders do. This problem, at least, was recognized by EU-US summit participants, who committed themselves to significantly increasing funding for exchange programs. That is probably the gathering’s most positive outcome. The new generation will consequently inherit a necessity for thinking boldly about new, more creative, and timely transatlantic responses to global challenges. The poor alternative is more transatlantic muddling through.