What new transatlantic institutions?

What new transatlantic institutions?

Bulletin article
Charles Grant , Mark Leonard
01 April 2005

Earlier this year, Gerhard Schröder caused a stir with a speech to the Munich Security Conference. When he said that NATO was no longer the forum for top level strategic discussions between Europeans and Americans he was stating the obvious. But he missed a bigger opportunity when he suggested convening a panel of the "Great and Good" to fix NATO.

The new NATO of 26 members is a useful and important organisation. It helps integrate former Soviet states into the West, keeps the peace in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and helps allied forces to learn to work alongside each other.

But NATO is not the place where Americans or Europeans want to talk about big strategic questions. None of the existing transatlantic institutions allows for high-level strategic discussions on important subjects such as democracy in the Middle East 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 current mess over the EU's plan to lift its arms embargo on China. The rows across the Atlantic have been foreseeable for over a year, but nobody on the EU or US side did any meaningful forward planning to defuse them.

Every year there is an EU-US summit, consisting of, on the European side, the Commission president, the High Representative for foreign policy (Javier Solana) and the prime minister of the country holding the EU's rotating presidency (currently Luxembourg); and on the US side of the President, Vice-President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, National Security Adviser, and occasionally other senior officials. But the last summit lasted just three hours and although it issued worthy declarations on economic ties, HIV-Aids, Iraq, Sudan and weapons of mass destruction, there were no substantive discussions on these issues. With neutral Ireland in the chair, and none of the big three EU 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-US relationship, the Europeans being represented by the Commission, the Council 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 decision-making forum, other American departments such as Commerce, Treasury and Defence are not represented, and senior State Department officials are reluctant to participate.

When it comes to co-operation on intelligence, the US agencies have a number of bilateral relationships with EU countries, but feed nothing to the EU's Situation Centre ('SitCen'), its intelligence co-ordinating body in the Council of Ministers. For example, according to one EU official, the organisation had been given "nothing on Hezbollah that we had not already read in the Washington Post".

The deeper problem lurking behind these inadequate transatlantic institutions is a European one. The sad truth is that European leaders do not discuss Iraq or China in a strategic way even among themselves, while the EU's insistence on granting even the smallest member-states the same status as France or Germany makes it hard for the Union to become 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 'EU Three' group of Britain, France and Germany, plus Solana, that has negotiated with Iran for the past two years. Europeans need to recognise 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 been embarrassing. Smaller countries should be involved when they have something to contribute, just as Poland and Lithuania worked with Solana in defusing the Ukraine crisis.

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, plus the US president and four of his most senior colleagues. The purpose would be free and frank strategic discussions, with no more than one official per politician allowed. There would be no press conference. In addition, the EU and the US should set up 'contact groups' to discuss specific issues. These should consist of the relevant EU foreign ministers and Solana, plus the US Secretary of State and perhaps other Americans. On North Africa, for example, the EU's Mediterranean countries should take part.

At a lower level, US departments other than State need to take part in the groups of senior EU and US officials. There are too few people in Washington who think about or know about the EU. 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 Americans 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.

Many smaller EU members will bristle at the idea of forums dominated by big countries. But they might be reconciled in three ways. First, the contact groups would include the relevant small countries. Second, the contact groups would not be decision-making bodies. They could make suggestions, but any EU decision would require the contact group to convince the Council of Ministers. Third, Solana should have a senior deputy tasked with listening to the views of small states, feeding them into the contact groups, and reporting back to them. In the enlarged EU, various sub-groups are inevitable, on an informal basis. Think, for example, of the regular meetings of the Baltic and Nordic countries. These meetings will happen whether people like them or not.

Our proposals recognise that a viable transatlantic relationship depends on a more coherent EU foreign policy. When the Europeans are split, transatlantic talks on any subject will be harder to manage, with the Americans inevitably playing different governments against each other. In visiting the EU and praising it, George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice seem to have abandoned their earlier indifference, and perhaps moved beyond the Clinton administration's preference for conducting transatlantic links bilaterally or through NATO. This apparent openness to a different kind of EU-US institutional relationship may stem as much from NATO's waning salience as the allure of a strong European Union. But it still presents the Europeans with an opportunity to recast the relationship - if they are mature enough to seize it.

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