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A New Partnership for a New Deal: EU Relations with the US under Obama

By Dr Yeo Lay Hwee, Director, EU Centre in Singapore & Senior Research Fellow, Singapore Institute of International Affairs

200,000 lined the streets of Berlin on 24 July when Obama, the US presidential candidate, visited Germany in 2008. Obama’s election victory in November was cheered by millions in Europe. The election of Obama brought new hopes that policy differences between the US and EU particularly on the issue of multilateralism would be narrowed. Now that the Europeans have got what they have asked for, what can President-elect Obama ask for in terms of partnership and support from the EU to tackle the multitude of global challenges from the financial crisis, climate change to the latest humanitarian crisis in Gaza? When Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the US on 20 January, what can he do to capitalize on the goodwill of the millions of Europeans and leverage on European leaders for a more productive EU-US partnership to tackle the three Es – Economy, Energy and External relations?

These three Es are purportedly the priorities of the Czech Presidency of the European Union (EU). There is no doubt that these three Es would also be the priorities of Obama, albeit with slightly different contents. It is time therefore, as the European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in his congratulatory note to Obama when he won the presidential election on 5 November, for “renewed commitment between Europe and US” to face together the common challenges and join forces to drive “a new deal for a new world”.

Much as Obama might want to pursue his own policy agenda and vision, some observers noted that a large part of his first term will be spent on cleaning up the mess left by the Bush administration. Hence Europeans should help Obama not by overwhelming him with expectations and demands, but try to ask what the EU can do for Obama and approached the incoming administration with a shared plan of action.

On the Economy, EU must work in tandem with US and other emerging economies to keep protectionism at bay. What can EU offer in support of a global agenda to keep economic border open, and to reform the financial architecture. For a start, the EU should consolidate whatever gains make within the WTO and stood firmly on principles of global free trade and seek to revive the Doha Development Agenda negotiations.

Britain and its EU partners should put the best minds together and engage experts and policy makers from both developed and emerging economies to come out with more concrete and specific proposals for the next G20 meeting to be held in London in April. Proposals should address two central issues – more coordinated regional and global efforts to tackle the ongoing lack of confidence and credit crunch in the financial system; and reform of the financial architecture. In the area of Energy, the team put together by Obama to tackle energy and climate change issues, has been hailed by many observers as proof of Obama’s seriousness on climate change and alternative energy. The EU which has been the leading advocate in pushing for global attention and efforts on environmental and climate change issues has just concluded a climate and energy package in the December 08 summit. The climate and energy pact has set the targets of cutting greenhouse gases by at least 20% of 1990 levels, increasing use of renewable energy to 20% of total energy production and cutting energy consumption by 20% of projected 2020 levels by the year 2020.

Nobel-laureate Stephen Chu who has been nominated by Obama to be US Energy Secretary is seen as someone who understands both the threat posed by climate change and the role of clean, efficient and renewable energy have to play in addressing this threat. He is known for his work on and support for technologies to help slow climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As the Energy Secretary he will be deeply involved in developing policy to fight global warming. The EU could not have a better partner than him in working closely together to push for a new climate deal post-Kyoto. A common EU-US position on climate change would be useful in getting other emerging economies particularly China and India to come fully on board for a post-Kyoto accord.

In External Relations, here the priorities of EU and US may not be exactly the same, but there will be many areas where the coordinated and concerted efforts of both would be helpful. Finding an answer to better engagement of Russia to temper its belligerence, integrating China further into not only the global economy but the overall global system, push for peace in the Middle East and protecting the international sea lanes of communication are some common concerns.

Developing a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) with strong links to NATO and a more coherent EU foreign policy would be helpful steps that the EU can address internally. The Lisbon Treaty which has already been ratified by 25 of the 27 EU member states would strengthen the foundation for a more coherent EU foreign policy in the shape of a stronger interlocutor given the power to coordinate EU foreign policy supported by a European diplomatic corp.

But even as we await the Czech Republic’s ratification of the Treaty, and a possible 2nd referendum by the Irish[1] after the concerns of the Irish people were taken into account by the European Council during the Summit in Dec, the EU has shown that when there is a political will, the EU can be a credible and capable partner in providing peace and security in the international arena. The EU has been involved in many humanitarian and peace-keeping missions and most recently, embarked on its first joint naval operations to patrol the Gulf of Eden to protect cargo ships from pirates.

There is much to look forward to in EU-US transatlantic ties under the new Obama administration. The remarks by the incoming US State Secretary Hillary Clinton at the confirmation hearing signaled the administration’s intention to break away from Bush’s unilateralism and move towards a more multilateral approach in American foreign policy. Both must not allowed this opportune moment to pass for bringing a new era of a more balanced and multilateral approach to global challenges.

* This commentary was contributed to the Straits Times and an edited version was published on 28 January 2009.

[1] The Irish held a referendum in June 08 on the Lisbon Treaty, and the Treaty was rejected.​