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Transatlantic Take

A New Transatlantic Era Needs New Institutions

January 27, 2021
4 min read
Photo Credit: Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock

Amid all the high hopes for a revived transatlantic relationship in the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, one thing is missing: how to turn grand schemes into reality. Failure to create institutional frameworks for new transatlantic collaboration could doom the most well-intentioned ambitions from the start.

The United States and Europe share major challenges: the coronavirus pandemic, a deep recession, global warming, China, technological change, and ongoing security issues. Existing transatlantic institutions are inadequate to the task of meeting these challenges.

Institutions are the skeleton for any strategic, diplomatic, or economic cooperation. They facilitate follow-through and ensure continuity given the notoriously short attention span of politicians and publics. But existing institutions are a product of the era in which they were created and may not be fit for purpose for current challenges. Like any skeleton, they may prove unable to bear the weight of new demands placed upon them. So, periodically, new institutions are needed.

For seven decades NATO has provided the institutional framework for the transatlantic relationship, evolving its mission and capabilities in the face of new security tests. But it is not the appropriate institution for dealing with pandemics or China or most technology issues, or even many of the security challenges on Europe’s periphery. Moreover, overburdening NATO risks diluting its mission by encumbering its decision making with highly divisive, disparate objectives. It should serve as a model of future transatlantic cooperation, but not the only vehicle.

A Transatlantic Summit

Coordination of a Biden-era U.S.-European cooperation across a range of initiatives should be invested in a revived annual U.S.-European summit, this time with a dedicated staff to prepare the agenda and implement decisions. This summit should include the United Kingdom and other non-EU or non-NATO European nations, such as Switzerland or Sweden.

The European Union will have to sort out who represents it at the table. It cannot be representatives of each 27 member states as such a cacophony will turn the summits into useless talking shops. The best solution will be different European national representatives at the table depending on the topic being discussed. The model is the nuclear negotiations with Iran, in which Europe was represented by the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy as well as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Transatlantic cooperation on China could demonstrate how future collaboration could work in practice. Washington and Brussels have already agreed in principle to a working group on China. The Biden administration should follow through on this initiative but upgrade who is around the table. It should be chaired by the U.S. vice president and comparable officials in the European Union and major European countries, as well as national ministers of defense, state, trade, finance, and commerce, to share intelligence, planning, and preparedness for the common economic, political, and strategic challenges posed by China.

At the same time, while greater transatlantic cooperation between government officials is necessary, it is not sufficient for dealing with the challenges ahead. For six decades, the North Atlantic Assembly has brought together legislators from all the members of the alliance to provide an ongoing link between NATO and parliaments of member nations that must ultimately approve funding for the armed forces.

But, like NATO, the North Atlantic Assembly’s focus is too narrow. Increasingly, the issues Europe and the United States both face require coordinated national regulatory cooperation that has so far been considered purely domestic in nature. Unless elected representatives of the public, who set the rules and fund politically sensitive issues such as climate change, privacy, digital taxation, and government subsidies are fully engaged in transatlantic regulatory cooperation, fears over the loss of national sovereignty and domestic prerogatives will consign such collaboration to a legislative graveyard.

A Transatlantic Legislative Meeting

To enlist legislators in joint problem solving, the EU and the United States should initiate an annual Transatlantic Assembly of members of Congress and the European Parliament with a focused agenda on priorities for joint action.

In addition, members of the European Parliament should be called to testify before Congress on issues of shared interest, especially where legislation in Congress may affect European interests, and vice versa. The coronavirus pandemic has taught us that this can be done remotely to facilitate participation without costly and timely travel.

Further to that aim, Congress should establish its own office in Brussels, as the European Parliament has in Washington, to track legislative initiatives and facilitate interaction. In the past, a Brussels office has been privately endorsed by speakers of the House of Representatives. The beginning of a new Congress is an opportunity to finally take this action.

In a populist era, institution-building has an establishment odor. And while Europeans are process-driven, Americans often disparage process in favor of action. But no actions are sustainable—be it on climate or China or economic recovery—without institutions to support the initiative. And if the Biden era is to be one of renewed transatlantic cooperation on issues of mutual concern, then the United States and Europe need new institutions to drive that collaboration.

Bruce Stokes is the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s transatlantic taskforce Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond