Reaching Beyond the Rhetoric: Implementing the EU-U.S. Agenda

Posted in Europe , United States | 16-May-07 | Author: Jackson Janes

U.S. President George W. Bush (C), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso laugh during a joint news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington April 30, 2007.

Summit Progress: Concrete Proposals Emerge
On April 30, the annual summit meeting between the European Union and the United States took place in Washington, DC. It was front page news in Europe but most Americans would not have noticed as there was virtually no media coverage of the event. The front page news in America on April 30 was about presidential election campaigns, Iraq, and a trial of a woman who ran an escort service for VIPs.

The fact that European political leaders, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel with an army of journalists and experts in tow, descended on Washington was, however, not lost on those engaged in the issues, be they corporate leaders involved in transatlantic trade or political officials dealing with energy security or climate change, all the way up to President Bush. Indeed, the fanfare surrounding the meetings included an announcement that there was a major breakthrough in creating a new transatlantic council which would see to it that barriers interfering with more transatlantic business would be removed, and efforts to deal with energy security and climate change challenges would be enhanced. And if one was so inclined to really get into the weeds of the exchanges on these issues, one could find some very concrete proposals emerging. As Chancellor Merkel suggested, there was more of a shared language than ever before in describing many of the issues which need to be tackled. This did not mean there was complete agreement on the means to deal with them, but a shared understanding of the problem can be half of the solution.

On the subjects of trade and investment, the central issue is how to remove barriers and enhance synergies for transatlantic business and consumers. That has much to do with getting more commonality among the regulatory processes which often remain captive of domestic interests and practices. On the energy security and climate change side, there remain some substantial differences across the Atlantic. For example, Europeans are more inclined toward setting mandatory goals for reducing carbon emissions, goals which many Americans feel are simply unrealistic. Americans are more inclined to turn toward the market to make course corrections, using incentives to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint. The transatlantic argument over Kyoto was hinged on these differences as well as whether any progress can be made without including all of the so-called BRICS into the loop (BRICS meaning Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

After that last Monday in April and amidst all the speeches and press conferences, the remaining challenge is whether the benchmarks proposed to deal with these issues can be really met. This was not the first EU-U.S. summit where such proclamations have been heard. What made this meeting a bit different was the establishment of more institutional commitment to monitoring progress; of course the proof will be where things stand a year or two from now.

Merkel Leads, But Will Washington Follow?
There was no doubt that Chancellor Merkel took full command of setting the agenda for this summit and the one still ahead, the G-8 meeting in Heiligendamm in mid June. Her staff and those of the relevant Ministries in her Cabinet - Foreign, Commerce, and Transport - were continually in Washington trying to hammer out the basis for agreements prior to the meeting. The question is how Merkel will seek to continue steering that effort after she turns the EU Presidency over to Portugal at the end of June.

Berlin has a lot more clout both within the EU as well as across the Atlantic than does Lisbon. The machinery in Brussels will remain the stage on which Germany will exert its influence in Europe. But the need to keep Washington's attention focused on this agenda will require constant work, especially as the pace picks up toward the presidential election in November of 2008. No one can say with any certainty who will be the next President, and how important these issues will be in that race to the White House - climate change, energy security, or global trade - remains to be seen. Equally important, and not always adequately understood in Europe, is the role of Congress in getting legislation passed on these issues. The volatile nature of the coming election year also leaves room for the switch in the Senate back to the Republicans, if not in the House of Representatives. That would make for a complicated equation in Washington if the Democrats take the White House.

Chancellor Merkel has invested heavily in her EU Presidency and she will want to show that it was worth it to her own constituency in Germany. She decided to make a strong push to resuscitate the move for a European Union constitution or whatever it will ultimately be called. She is also filling the role of Europe's leader at a time when the new and untested leaderships in Paris and London are only just now walking onto the field. If she can keep the EU on a course to meet its own benchmarks, maybe with the help of the new president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, it will also be good for her at home. Next year there are several large state elections which will provide some indication of what the voters think about her and her governing coalition in Berlin. Most Germans like her performance on the foreign policy stage, and being the center of attention in the EU is helping her despite frequent spats with her coalition partner over domestic issues.

Keep the Pressure On for Success
The Chancellor also invested a lot of her personal capital in setting the transatlantic agenda as a central part of her Presidency. Chancellor Merkel enjoys a great deal of trust and respect in Washington on both sides of the political aisle. She will have to gauge how she can best maneuver through the struggle for power there in the next year and a half and still keep track of the agenda's progress. Seeing the momentum dissipate on either side of the Atlantic would detract from her current strong position. And there are many stakeholders interested in seeing a successful implementation of the goals set on April 30. If after a year it looks as if this agenda is not being taken seriously, it will be relegated to the many other initiatives that ran out of steam and discourage new ones from being taken.

There are lots of unpredictable factors, including her partners, for her to cope with, but if the Chancellor can keep things going, she will also stand a very good chance of having more than one term in office while making both Europe and the transatlantic partnership stronger and more effective.

One important aspect of that effort will be trying to overcome organizational silos which tend to get in the way of linkages between issues such as energy security, climate change and economic growth. Whether it be the interagency process in Washington or the ministerial process in Europe, the decision-making machinery can often be its own worst enemy when it comes to reaching a consensus.

But as Chancellor Merkel warned in her final speech on April 30, there are lots of people who will be watching to see whether we make the maximum out of a unique opportunity.

This essay appeared in the May 11, 2007, AICGS Advisor.