Expert: EU-US Relations Ripe For Lisbon Treaty Upgrade

By Olof Gill

Ron Asmus is currently executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center. He is also responsible for strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
What does the Lisbon Treaty mean for EU-US relations?

I think it's a little bit early to answer this question, because one shoe has dropped and the other hasn't. If you take a 10-year view, American opinion toward the EU has shifted. Our Eurosceptics, if you like, are gone. They're gone at the elite level, they're gone at the public opinion level.

The questioning of whether the US wants a strong Europe has disappeared. So America is more willing than ever before, both at the elite and public level, to embrace the EU.

These changes actually originated under George W. Bush, who came to Europe as if to symbolically say 'the EU is OK'. Now, what Bush didn't do was lay out a positive American vision of how a new EU-US relationship could unfold and flourish. The question now is whether Obama will do that. I think there's some interest in thinking along these lines in the Obama administration, but we haven't seen any tangible evidence of it yet, not because they don't care but because they're simply overwhelmed by other foreign policy questions.

I think Lisbon could well trigger an American discussion about what we do next – is this the moment for an upgrade in relations with the EU, and, in parallel, the rethink of the strategic concept of NATO?

It's interesting that, thus far, neither the president nor the secretary of state [Hillary Clinton] has given an architectural speech about how we see transatlantic relations and all these other pieces fitting together.

My intuition tells me we'll see that speech sometime in early 2010. The wheels of bureaucracy and thinking are turning – they know they have to give a speech pretty soon, not next week or next month, but sometime in the next three to six months.

Because while people in Europe love Obama, they are now asking what he really thinks about Europe, what his long-term vision is, and how all these pieces will fit together.
And presumably, the Lisbon Treaty and specifically the global positions it creates would feed into this long-term architecture of EU-US relations.

Yes, exactly. All this is partly a function of what is happening in the United States and what I like to call our 'changing interests', and the things we need to do are driving us to seek closer co-operation with the EU – areas such as economic and financial affairs, justice and home affairs (what we call homeland security), development, energy, etc. etc…

So it's not like we've suddenly had an epiphany and realised we like the EU, it's more to do with the nature of the challenges we face, and when we ask ourselves who is competent to deal with these, we're pushed more and more in the direction of the EU.

In the post-Bush era, we have a more multilateral administration, and when you take the anti-European factor out of this, all the pieces are there for this administration to take the next step and lay out its long-term vision. But it hasn't happened yet. 

What about the argument advocated by some analysts that Obama, partly due to his childhood years in Asia, but also the current geopolitical reality with the EU still a 'political pygmy' on the global stage, does not rank the EU very highly in his hierarchy of priorities, even in this new era of multilateralism?

I think that's wrong, although I can't prove it. Some analysts have indeed argued that Obama is the most European president in terms of world view, but is not interested in Europe as such.

I've written a number of papers outlining why we should upgrade and rethink EU-US relations. Upgrade is the key word – a lot of good work is already being done.

For example, one of the under-reported stories is how much we already do together in what we what we call homeland security (justice and home affairs in Europe), and I sometimes joke that in the future, the secretary of homeland security will be as important as the secretary of state.

But the real question is whether or not we keep doing things in an ad hoc fashion. American diplomats come to Brussels in droves and find their counterparts in the EU hierarchy, but there's no master plan, no blueprint. It's too hit-and-miss, and above all, there's no political 'forcing mechanism' where the leaders at the top get together, identify three or four key issues, set up taskforces to follow up and get the job done.
So in your best-case scenario, this is what will happen in the next three to six months?

Well, now that Lisbon has gone through, I think you need to leave some time for Europe to sort out what the new treaty means and put people in place. The new team in Brussels will be in place in January or February, and we'll have a EU-US summit under the Spanish Presidency sometime in the spring.

So the signal would need to come from the US between January/February and the EU-US summit that we want to do this, in some fashion, and provide some form of political commitment to say we're going to upgrade.

We're ripe for this to happen, but whether someone will step forward, grab it by the reins, put the pieces together and turn it into a speech, I don't know.

But the EU clearly knows that this is an administration that wants to move in a more compatible direction.
What about from the EU's side? The Lisbon Treaty creates these new 'top jobs', and the big debate seems to be whether the new Council president, for example, should be a figure with a global profile or a more low-key managerial chairperson. Would the US prefer a globe-trotting 'big player' as EU president?

Yes. Without mentioning names, what we want are strong global personalities. Mentioning names, I would say that a Tony Blair/Carl Bildt team would be perfect from an American perspective, but they both face problems and they may not get it.

A less prominent team would arguably be a disappointment. We want people who have proven leadership record and can get things done internationally.

Our strategic agenda has shifted. We're less concerned with security in Europe and more concerned about the problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East, and we've understood that if we want to work long-term, co-operatively and strategically with Europe, the Bush 'coalition of the willing' approach was OK for a two or three-year problem, but to address a decade or decades-long problem, you need the institutional framework and you need Europe as a whole to engage. These are the factors that are driving us to want a stronger, more competent EU. Now, the Americans will be careful not to get caught up in the internal European arguments, though to some degree we can't avoid it.

For example, do we want to get involved in the fight with the Tories? No. Do we agree with the Tory view of Europe? No.

Hopefully, we will walk carefully and gingerly so we don't get instrumentalised in the European debate, but we would prefer a higher-profile, strong team that suggests Europe is willing and able to take on more responsibility.
Speaking of global responsibilities – all hope now seems to be lost for any meaningful agreement at the December climate change summit in Copenhagen. What is your analysis of this from the US perspective?

Obama has been unlucky, because it would be better for all of us if Copenhagen was next year and not this year.

With the combination of everything he's had to do in his first year in office, the American debate is not as advanced or as crystallised as it is in Europe. There's still a gap, though it is much smaller.

I hope we can come up with a creative compromise that allows us to get some things done in Copenhagen, but also set a relatively clear deadline for the next step, and see if we can keep narrowing this gap.

Obama clearly hasn't had enough time or ability to invest as much political capital in this issue as he would like to.

The cluster of issues around energy and climate is clearly another topic that would be central to a renewed EU-US agenda. This is something big, but again, we haven't laid the groundwork yet.