In 2015, Europe experienced both the costs and the benefits of the United States’ shifting global priorities. Most importantly, it paid a price for relying on the US to protect its interests in the Middle East. Europe has long looked to the US as a guarantor of stability in the region, but President Barack Obama has limited US engagement, largely because he does not believe that instability in Syria threatens US interests in a way that merits the costs of a greater intervention, or that such an intervention would be likely to succeed. This reduced role was not matched by increased European engagement in the region, particularly in Syria.
The result is that the EU had limited protection against the threat that the Syrian civil war poses to its vital interests. The most visible outcomes were the massive refugee flows in the autumn, and the Islamic State (ISIS)-coordinated terror attack in Paris. Europe now finds itself relying on the US at a time when many Americans are questioning whether stabilising the Middle East is possible or worth the cost. The inconvenient truth may well be that US interests are simply not at stake in the region to the degree that Europe’s are.
The Syrian civil war and the resulting spillover look set to worsen in 2016. In the absence of any coordinated plan from the US to influence events there, the great challenge for European diplomacy over the next five years will be to influence the US to act in a way that also advances the EU’s interests. So far, the US has concentrated mostly on the Russia angle in its diplomacy on Syria and has marginalised Europe. Unfortunately, there is little sign that the EU has a clear sense of what US policy would advance its strategic interests, let alone how to persuade Washington to adopt it.
The EU and US are more in sync on Russia and Ukraine. Germany fashioned and led a consensus within the EU to maintain sanctions against Russia while pursuing a diplomatic solution, and the US not only accepted the European bid for leadership, but also welcomed and facilitated it. The US has been a firm backer of sanctions and helped boost the impact of the EU’s sanctions regime. The US was an observer, not a participant, in the Normandy format negotiations that resulted in the Minsk II ceasefire agreement. Due in part to European insistence, the Obama administration rejected domestic pressure to provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government. Nevertheless, Europe does rely on the US to bolster NATO’s collective defence clause – Article 5 – and to reassure the organisation’s members in Eastern and Northern Europe. Fortunately, Washington’s commitment to NATO has been solid.
On the negative side of the ledger, US positions have, at times, had harmful effects on European diplomacy. Some US diplomatic initiatives, such as Secretary of State John Kerry’s May visit to Sochi, Russia, sent counterproductive signals to Moscow, which could have proved catastrophic for diplomatic efforts on the Ukraine crisis. By contrast, the hawkishness of the US domestic debate on Russia may have encouraged Europe to take a softer stance to prevent escalation.
With the 2016 election nearing, the next president will likely be someone who reasserts US leadership on the world stage. This could include acting more unilaterally on Russia and Ukraine, if the conflict flares up again.
Meanwhile, it was a year of negotiation on other fronts. The talks on Iran’s nuclear programme came to a successful conclusion. The deal was unpopular in the US, but the Obama administration won enough support on Capitol Hill to prevent its failure, and the agreement stands as a major success for transatlantic cooperation. There will be differences about how to approach Iran in the years to come, with the US moving towards containment and EU member states and institutions seeking broader cooperation.
The negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a planned free trade agreement between the EU and the US – are proving difficult and are unlikely to be concluded in 2016. The upcoming change in administration is likely to lead to a shift in the US position, regardless of whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected. This, along with all of the pressures of the new president’s first year, could see the negotiations drag on to 2017. Success by the end of 2016 would require accelerated progress in negotiations, beyond what we have seen to date.
The European Court of Justice’s invalidation of the 2000 Safe Harbor agreement, which provided safeguards for the transfer of data between the EU and the US, led to increased uncertainty for businesses, and calls to renegotiate it in accordance with the court’s demands.
In 2015, the US played an active role in encouraging the eurozone to keep Greece as a member and in pushing the United Kingdom to stay in the EU. This involved diplomatic interventions on the side of Italy and France during the Greece crisis and statements on Brexit, including ruling out a separate trade deal with the UK if it leaves. These interventions reflect a growing concern in the US that the coherence and integrity of the EU is at risk from populist forces, especially in Eastern and Central Europe.
Taking a step back, a dramatic shift in the agenda of EU–US relations has taken place in recent years. The US has complained for decades about Europe failing to share the burden of leadership, but now there is a different form of burden distribution. The US is relatively insulated from the costs of sanctions, refugees, and terrorism, while Europe is in the firing line. In the coming years, the question will be whether Europe can take on more responsibility for its own security, and, if it succeeds, whether the US is comfortable accepting this. If Europe does not or cannot do more, it will be up to the US to decide whether to deepen its engagement in Europe, and on what terms.
Leaders: Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK
Because the ongoing negotiations on the TTIP trade deal are led by the European Commission, the value-added from national governments is largely from arguing the TTIP case at home, in order to keep the process on track. Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK worked especially hard to communicate the advantages of TTIP to a sceptical public.
The EU’s response to the creation of China’s Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) represented a critical moment in the transatlantic relationship in 2015. The US, fearful of the Chinese initiative to create the new institution, exercised some diplomatic pressure on EU states not to get involved. In the end, 14 states joined ahead of the AIIB’s launch, and this was not coordinated at EU level. Since there was no EU discussion or position on joining, member states cannot be characterised as leaders or slackers on this issue. The UK announced its intention to sign up without consulting other EU states, in an attempt to extract first-mover advantage, which irritated many, including other EU states planning to join, international partners who were trying to shape the institution before joining, and the US.
There is no EU–US cooperation framework agreement in place, which is rare in bilateral relations between the two. Instead, the agenda is driven by summits, where working groups and other initiatives are launched. This makes the cooperation architecture quite flexible and pragmatic. Because of the importance of the US as a partner for EU countries, almost every department or directorate general (DG) in the Commission has a division on transatlantic relations.
One of the priorities for the US in 2015 was the ongoing negotiation on TTIP. Lead by the trade department, DG TRADE, this process was given a boost by the successful conclusion of negotiations on the US’s Pacific Rim trade deal, TTP. The talks remained on course, though progress was slower than initially hoped. Since the eventual deal will need to be signed off by all member states, and there are various special relationships on defence, the economy, and so on to be taken into account, member state input is very important. Another crucial aspect of member state cooperation is communication with populations about the dangers and benefits of TTIP since public scepticism is growing across Europe.
Apart from trade, security is one of the most important strands in EU–US cooperation. After the Snowden leaks, the EU–US “Umbrella Agreement” on data protection, led by the Commission’s justice department, DG Justice, was a great milestone. The European External Action Service (EEAS) organised the fourth annual transatlantic symposium on the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy in April. In June, the initial US–EU Security and Development Dialogue was held – a quadrilateral exchange between the US foreign affairs and development assistance agencies, the EEAS, and the Commission’s department for development and cooperation.