What new transatlantic institutions?

What new transatlantic institutions?

Opinion piece (European Affairs)
Charles Grant , Mark Leonard
01 June 2006

The last two years have seen a rapprochement across the Atlantic. The elevation of new personnel – such as Condoleezza Rice to the State Department and Angela Merkel as German Chancellor – has helped to remove some of the bitterness that the Iraq confrontation had left behind. On the substance of issues such as Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China, both sides have sought to work towards compromise rather than confrontation. But this new personal warmth should not be allowed to conceal a major weakness in the relationship between Europe and the United States: the inefficiency of Transatlantic institutions.

The new NATO of 26 members is a useful and important organization – integrating former Soviet states into the West, keeping the peace in Kosovo and Afghanistan, promoting interoperability among allied forces and so on. But it is not the place where Americans or Europeans want to talk about big strategic questions. Meanwhile the scope and intensity of the EU-U.S. relationship has grown, even in the sphere of security. For example, it is the EU rather than NATO that now polices Bosnia, sends troops to the Congo for the July elections and deals with counter-terrorism policies such as extradition procedures, phone records and container security.

However, the current institutions of the EU-U.S. relationship do not allow for high-level strategic discussions on important subjects such as democracy in the Middle East, the growth of authoritarianism in Russia or the rise of China. As a result American and European leaders often fail to comprehend each others' positions, thereby increasing the likelihood of confrontation. Take the messy flap over the EU's arms embargo on China: after promising in December 2004 that it was going to lift its embargo, the European Union then reversed itself in the face of American pressure and declared in March 2005 that it would not. These rows across the Atlantic were foreseeable for well over a year before they happened, but nobody on the EU or U.S. side did any substantive forwardplanning to defuse them.

The EU's special brand of "political correctness" grants Luxembourg the same status as France in foreign policy.

Every year there is an EU-U.S. summit consisting of, on the European side, the president of the European Commission, the High Representative for foreign policy (currently Javier Solana) and the head of state or government of the country holding the EU's rotating presidency; and on the U.S. side the President, Vice- President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, National Security Adviser and occasionally other senior officials. But they are often disappointing events. The summit in 2004, for example, lasted just three hours and, although it issued declarations on economic ties, HIVAIDS, Iraq, Sudan and weapons of mass destruction, it did not discuss any of the bigger issues. (With neutral Ireland in the chair, and none of the EU's “big three” countries – Britain, France and Germany – represented, that was not entirely surprising.)

At a lower level, several groups of senior officials attempt to manage the EU-U.S. relationship, the Europeans being represented by the Commission, the Council [of Ministers, whose secretary-general is the High Representative] and the presidency, and the Americans by the State Department and the National Security Council. But because these groups are not preparing for a real decisionmaking forum, other American departments such as Commerce, Treasury and Defense are not represented, and senior State Department officials are often reluctant to participate.

When it comes to cooperation on intelligence, the U.S. agencies have a number of bilateral relationships with their counterparts in EU countries, but they feed nothing to the EU's Situation Center ('SitCen'), its intelligence-coordinating body in the Council of Ministers. For example, according to one EU official, the organization has been given “nothing on Hezbollah that we had not already read in The Washington Post.”

A deeper problem lurking behind these inadequate Transatlantic institutions is purely European. The sad truth is that European leaders seldom discuss Iraq or China in a strategic way even among themselves. In addition, the EU's special brand of “political correctness” – which insists on granting Luxembourg the same status as France in foreign policy – stops the EU from becoming a credible international partner.

So the Europeans should use the current debate over Transatlantic institutions as a trigger not to tinker with NATO but to put their own house in order. They should try to build on the fairly successful example of informal, smaller forums such as the Contact Group which dealt with the Balkans in the 1990s (involving the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy); or the “EU Three” group (Britain, France and Germany, plus Solana) that has negotiated with Iran for the past two years.

Europeans need to recognize that the larger member states have more to say on many of the big issues. Austria, for example, has strong views on the Balkans but not on Kashmir, Congo or Algeria. This is not to say that the big countries necessarily have the best analysis or prescriptions: the uncritical attitude of the French, German and Italian governments towards Russia in recent years has at times been embarrassing. Smaller countries should be involved when they have something to contribute, just as Poland and Lithuania worked with Solana on Ukraine in defusing the crisis there in late 2004.

The same principle should apply to Transatlantic relations. At the highest level, there should be an annual gathering in a quiet retreat, for walks in the woods and fireside chats. No more than five European leaders (probably those of Britain, France, Germany and the Commission, plus Solana) should take part in this gathering with the U.S. president and four of his most senior colleagues. The purpose would be free and frank discussion, with no more than one official per politician allowed, and no press conference.

Then for strategic discussions on specific problems, “contact groups” should be established. These should consist of the relevant EU foreign ministers and Solana, together with the U.S. Secretary of State and perhaps other Americans. On North Africa, for example, the EU's Mediterranean countries should take part; on Russia, many of the East European states should be involved.

At a lower level, U.S. departments other than State need to take part in the groups of senior EU and U.S. officials. There are too few people in Washington who think about or know about the European Union. Furthermore, the CIA should send a senior representative to the SitCen, feeding in intelligence when appropriate (the CIA already does this with the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee).

The American services are understandably reluctant to share anything with a multilateral bureaucracy. But if they want to influence EU foreign policy, they should think of following the Israeli example. In March 2005 Israeli intelligence briefed the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee on Hezbollah and its apparent links to terrorism. As a result, the European Parliament passed a motion calling for tough measures against Hezbollah.

The Bush team has perhaps moved beyond the Clinton administration's insistence that Transatlantic links be conducted bilaterally or through NATO.

Many small countries will bristle at the idea of forums dominated by big countries. But they might be reconciled in two ways. First, the contact groups would not be decision-making bodies. They could make suggestions, but any EU decisions would require the contact group to convince the Council of Ministers. Second, Solana could have a senior deputy whose purpose would be to listen to the views of small states, feed them to the contact groups, and report back to them. In the enlarged EU, various sorts of sub-groups are inevitable, on an informal basis. Think, for example, of the regular meetings of the Baltic and Nordic countries, or the French, German and Spanish summit with Putin in March 2005. These meetings will happen whether people like them or not.

Our proposals recognize that a viable Transatlantic relationship depends on a more coherent EU foreign policy. When the Europeans are split, Transatlantic talks on any given issue are harder to manage. When George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice visited the EU in February 2005, and praised it, they seemed to have abandoned their earlier indifference, and perhaps moved beyond the Clinton administration's insistence that Transatlantic links be conducted bilaterally or through NATO. This apparent openness to a different kind of EU-U.S. institutional relationship may stem as much from NATO's waning salience as the allure of a strong EU. But it still presents the Europeans with an opportunity to recast the relationship – if they are mature enough to seize it.