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Opinion

Transatlantic drifts

Spying, trade and global security may be pulling the US-EU relationship in different directions.

Last Modified: 03 Nov 2013 11:23
Rosa Balfour

Dr Rosa Balfour is head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels.
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"At the end of the day, both Obama and Merkel are pragmatic people and will find a way to get over this spat," writes Rosa Balfour [Getty]

The longer it takes for President Obama to apologise to his European allies for US spying on their phone calls, the wider the transatlantic rift becomes. But it will remain a diplomatic rift only because the core interests on both sides of the Atlantic will not be overly affected by the latest snooping episode. European and US leaders have invested too much politically in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to let spying scandals get in the way.

The many stories around the revelations that the US National Security Agency was spying on Europeans and their leaders have made us all wonder: Are Europeans really enraged, or is it a storm in a tea cup, spinned by the media? It is widely believed that Britain and France have spying devices all over the place. Italian authorities regularly tap into the phone calls of their own politicians. So what is all the fuss about?

Some back German Chancellor Angela Merkel's argument about trust. Not only  is spying on supposed friends "unacceptable", but there is also the fact that there are easy ways to find out what Berlin is up to: Make a phone call and discuss issues of mutual interest through the usual diplomatic channels. Furthermore, the German elite has extensively expressed its disappointment to the US, even questioning the basics of the relationship.

Whether this is a serious rift or not, diplomacy can patch up the stitch. Secretary of State John Kerry is already starting to make the first moves. Meanwhile, the TTIP negotiations will continue and citizens will never really know who is spying on whom and why.

Waning US interest in Europe?

At a deeper level, however, the episode highlights a few things about the state of transatlantic relations which are worth looking out for in the months to come.

If Europe is expected to be a stronger and more equal partner, ideas and information need to be exchanged on a regular basis to get the joint strategy right.

Obama is the most loved US president in Europe ever, with approval ratings in the region of 70 percent - more than most European leaders - and Germans are amongst the most enthusiastic. The crowds which flocked to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to hear Obama in 2008, when he was still campaigning to become president, and in June 2013, show what an extraordinary appeal he enjoys in this part of the world. Europeans generally look to the US as their best partner worldwide (while the US increasingly looks to Asia). It will be interesting indeed to see whether these figures will change in next year's Transatlantic Trends survey.

At the same time, European leaders have felt bereft of their usual privileged relationship with the US and accuse Washington of abandoning Europe in favour of the "pivot" to Asia. Whether this is the case or not, it does not matter: The perception counts. It is true that some European leaders have been somewhat juvenile in their complaints. After all, the US does expect Europe to "grow up", to stop relying on NATO and the US for security, and play a bigger role as an international problem solver.

At the same time, Obama has not dedicated much attention to his friends in Europe, avoiding dinner-time chit chat and other occasions to build relationships. He has not nurtured the popularity he enjoys in Europe. Back in 2010, the Spaniards were dismayed that he cancelled the US-EU summit organised during their EU Presidency (the argument being there was nothing to talk about), and his diplomatic visits to the region have been fewer and shorter than those of his predecessors.

If Europe is expected to be a stronger and more equal partner, ideas and information need to be exchanged on a regular basis to get the joint strategy right. Europe has taken the lead, with the backing of the US, on some issues, such as managing the Balkans, the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, and negotiations with Iran. But on others, cooperation is weak and occasional, such as on Syria and the momentous changes in the Arab world, and close to non-existent on Asia.

At the end of the day, both Obama and Merkel are pragmatic people and will find a way to get over this spat. The stakes of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are high. According to the European Commission, the TTIP will increase the size of the European and the US economies by 0.5 percent and 0.4 percent respectively; boost the average European household income by almost $700 a year; and it will also have a positive impact on other countries. At this time of crisis, this is the only tangible prospect for increasing Europe's GDP, and for this reason, will remain the paramount political priority for all political leaders, spying notwithstanding.

Overcoming differences

The deepest layer that the spying story has unveiled are the real differences between the two sides of the Atlantic. The timetable set to conclude the TTIP negotiations is ambitious: the end of 2014. This means that over the next year more differences will challenge the relationship. Europeans will never accept US standards on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for example, and will demand that other trade barriers are upheld to protect key sectors of the European market. France has already obtained an exception on cultural goods.

No doubt, anything related to data protection will become even more controversial in light of the spying revelations. Environmental standards, agriculture, cultural products, civil liberties are all areas where the US and the European Union have different traditions and deep interests, and the negotiations are bound to bring them out.

Much diplomacy will be needed then to manage these differences and make sure they are not blown out of proportion. Avoiding other "spy-gate" type disagreements should be a political priority.

Dr. Rosa Balfour is Head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank based in Brussels. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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