2013 was a year when big things – both good and bad – happened in the transatlantic relationship. On the positive side, the EU and the US launched TTIP negotiations and the E3+3 negotiated an interim deal with Iran on its nuclear programme. Both were significant achievements for EU foreign policy and were contingent upon close co-operation with the US. The successful negotiation of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is not on the same scale as a transatlantic issue but it is also a significant accomplishment and builds on decades of co-operation between Europe and the US. [...]
However, on the negative side, transatlantic co-operation on the response to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians was a disaster that painfully unfolded in public. The revelations by Edward Snowden of US spying on European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the collection of metadata in Europe sparked a public outcry and a serious crisis between the EU and the US. Finally, in November 2013, Ukraine rejected an Association Agreement with the EU, thus dealing a major blow to EU and US efforts to integrate Eastern Europe into the West, although popular pro-EU demonstrations showed that the West continues to appeal to ordinary Ukrainians. The negative developments cancelled out the positive developments and the EU got a B- grade, as it did last year.
The incomplete positive and negative developments of 2013 raise lots of questions for the future. Can TTIP be concluded? Will there be a final agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme and will it work or turn out to be a Middle Eastern version of the failed deals with North Korea? Can the fallout from the Snowden revelations be contained? Others, like Syria, will rumble on. In some ways, what comes next will determine how we perceive what has just happened. If TTIP or the negotiations with Iran fail, analysts will comb through the past 12 months for evidence of overreach or naivety. If they succeed, the verdict will be much kinder – ten years after the invasion of Iraq, the transatlantic alliance will once again be seen to be shaping the future instead of being captive to events.
At this stage, though, it is fair to offer a preliminary assessment that transatlantic relations are as strong as they have been for some time. Real progress has been made. TTIP would be the world’s largest ever bilateral free trade agreement. The West has been struggling with Iran’s nuclear programme since the early 2000s. Europe and the US are closely aligned on most of the other major issues of the day. Even on the crisis points, such as the Snowden affair, the closeness of the relationship prevented spillover into other areas of co-operation, at least for the moment. The setback in Ukraine was not the result of a transatlantic disagreement – Europe and the US worked together but lost. The lesson is about the need for a better strategy, not for greater co-ordination.
The major exception, of course, was Syria. Europe was divided internally and the more hawkish states were at odds with the Obama administration. France wanted the US to do more to back the rebels but in Washington that just resurrected fears that it would be left carrying the can if things turned sour. The aftermath of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack on civilians was particularly damaging to the relationship. Although there was substantial progress towards the removal of chemical weapons without military intervention, governments were seen as unable to deliver what they promised. Europe was marginalised as Russia took advantage of the situation. And the regime was given an enhanced legitimacy due to its new role as an indispensable partner in the disposal of chemical weapons.
There are several reasons for concern in this period of strong transatlantic co-operation. The first is the trend line. The prevailing view in the US is that Europe is in a slow but real long-term decline, which may be somewhat offset if negotiations on TTIP succeed. The volatility of the first years of the euro crisis has been replaced by a protracted period of economic stagnation from which there appears to be no escape for several years at least. European defence budgets continue to decrease and are hollowing out Europe’s military capacity. Thus, the capabilities gap between the US and Europe will continue to grow. Germany seems to be embracing a more pacifist non-interventionist foreign policy that places it at odds with France and the UK. And there are still doubts as to whether the EU will survive the decade intact. This perception will have a cost.
The second reason for concern is the possibility of an American retrenchment from the Middle East. Although the US refocused its diplomacy on the Middle East and Europe in 2013, there is little doubt that its long-term intention remains to rebalance its presence and strategy towards East Asia, which showed worrying signs of instability and crisis in 2013. Through this prism, US diplomacy in the Middle East actually has the purpose of solving problems, such as the Iranian nuclear programme, so the US can disengage further from the region. It is debatable whether or not the US can insulate itself from regional instability but there is little doubt that Europe cannot. Moreover, Europeans have reason to doubt whether the US will come to its aid – whether in North Africa or the Balkans – if their interests are at stake but those of the US are perceived not to be.
The third reason for concern is the gap between policymakers and the foreign policy elites and national governments and the public. Snowden is a case in point here. His revelations came as little surprise to European leaders or the foreign policy establishment but they shocked the public – especially younger voters – and raised the political costs of intelligence co-operation with the US. Similarly on TTIP, it is embraced by leaders on both sides of the Atlantic but could fall prey to populist sentiment if not managed carefully. Overall, though, 2013 was a good year for the transatlantic relationship. Europe did not get everything it wanted but it got quite a bit. There are new points on the board even if long-term concerns remain.