It makes sense to think of Europe’s response to the United States pivot towards Asia as an episode in Europe’s continuing preoccupation with retaining US commitment, rather than as a moment of epiphany. That preoccupation has a long history, starting decades before the 2010 ‘pivot speech’ and the later ‘rebalancing clarification’.
It remains to be seen how European anger with the US over spying allegations made by Edward Snowden will affect EU–US relations. It’s a reasonable bet that the eventual conclusion will be that whatever the Americans do, everyone still needs them.
Even before the Snowden disclosures about National Security Agency activities, Europe’s concern about continued US commitment persisted, despite US reassurances, including this gratifying one from Vice President Joe Biden:
President Obama and I continue to believe that Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the rest of the world and is the catalyst for our global cooperation. It’s that basic. Nothing has changed.
At an official level, European responses to the US pivot have been measured, at least in public. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, met in Phnom Penh in July of 2012 and issued a joint statement that included the following boilerplate:
Closer consultation between the European Union and the United States on Asia-Pacific issues bilaterally, and with partners across the region, will be aimed at advancing regional security, development, well-being, and prosperity.
NATO also chipped in, when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO, said this at the Carnegie Europe Event:
I welcome the increased attention that the United States is paying to the Asia-Pacific region. This is also in Europe’s interest. It is certainly not at the expense of the transatlantic relationship. On the contrary, by paying greater attention to Asia and the Pacific, the United States is also contributing to Europe’s security and well-being. Earlier this year, I visited South Korea and Japan. And I was struck by how well these partners understand our interdependence.
It wouldn’t be too unkind to detect the presence of some fluff there.
Much of the comment on the EU and the pivot has focused on the complications involved in EU–US relations the complications within the EU itself, and worries about the American and European economies. Angela Merkel’s recent return as Germany’s Chancellor, (albeit reliant on an as yet uncertain coalition grouping) doesn’t resolve the issues. Three factors stand out.
First, Germany is indignant about the American National Security Agency’s appetite for information about matters Germans regard as their own affairs. This hasn’t made it a good time for Germans to be particularly well disposed to the US. For a period Germans thought that Ms Merkel was too laid back over the spying. But when Der Spiegel said that Ms Merkel’s own mobile phone was being tapped, that was a bit much for her and she went directly to President Obama about it. The assurance she got was that the Americans weren’t listening to her telephone. There was no assurance that they hadn’t done so in the past.
Germany, France and Italy now want a new Intelligence code of conduct with the US. That’s unlikely to be the end of it. The Financial Times has run an article arguing that European anger is interfering with any progress towards an EU-US trade agreement.
Secondly, Ms Merkel seems singularly disinterested in foreign and security affairs. The rest of Europe looks to Germany for leadership but the Chancellor’s mind seems usually to be on other things. Thirdly, Germans are wary of conflict for obvious historical reasons.
There are other niggling incidents. For example Germany developed a drone, the Eurohawk—a version of the Global Hawk allegedly making more use of US technology than it had permission for. That project has now been abandoned and Germany is developing a drone using its own resources.
The American attitude towards the EU is further complicated by Britain’s intention to hold a referendum on its continuing membership—a development that the US wouldn’t welcome because it wants to deal with an EU which includes its close ally Britain.
Another complication is the continuing search for a role for NATO. The pithy comment that the purpose of NATO was to keep the ‘Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down’ no longer suffices as a justification. The proposal to have an EU defence force is still being debated, but individual European countries reserve their right to decide whether their own armed forces will participate in any conflict.
But if the trans-Atlantic security relationship has its problems, the overall relationship between the EU and the US is far from ailing. Michael Froman, the US Trade Representative, speaking on the United States, the European Union and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership at the end of last month said:
Today, the U.S. and the European Union are each other’s largest economic partners, with $2.6 billion dollars’ worth of goods and services flowing between us each day. We invest nearly $4 trillion in each other’s economies, creating the world’s largest investment relationship. And more than 13 million people owe their jobs to the transatlantic economic relationship. The U.S.-EU economic partnership is second to none.
The US Trade Representative is struggling to keep the spying mess and trade negotiations with the EU separate, a struggle whose end is not immediately in sight.
Stuart McMillan is an adjunct senior fellow in the school of social and political sciences at the University of Canterbury and also a research associate in the National Centre for Research on Europe at that university. Image courtesy of Radical Cartography.