China, multilateralism and NATO dominate European Parliament’s lively debate on EU-US relationship

European Parliament plenary debate on the future of EU-US relations made clear that there is still hope and that the transatlantic partnership can continue to grow, despite recent upsets
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By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a Brussels-based journalist and copy editor

05 Oct 2021

Tuesday morning’s key European Parliament plenary debate on the “future of EU-US relations” made clear that there is still hope and, indeed, the expectation that the transatlantic partnership can continue to grow, despite the recent upsets in Afghanistan and concerns over Asia/Pacific policies.

However, the chaotic retreat from Kabul and the secretive AUKUS alliance were not forgotten, not least in Foreign Affairs (AFET) Committee rapporteur Tonino Picula’s (S&D, CR) remark that “we must reinforce both: the European Union’s autonomy of decision and its autonomy of action.”

The Renew Group’s shadow rapporteur Dragoș Tudorache (RO) had this message for “our American friends”: “In the light of recent events, [they] need to understand that partners and allies consult one another before making strategic decisions. The world is no longer uni-or bi-polar and acting alone is no longer a recipe for success.”

His colleague from the centre-right EPP, Željana Zovko (CR) announced that her group had put forward an amendment to the report proposing the creation of a “transatlantic political council as a platform to improve communication channels and to avoid unnecessary tensions.”

But the latest upsets were perhaps most vividly described by the ECR’s Vice-Chair Assita Kanko (BE), who commented: “’The United States are back’, said President Biden after the election (…). Some thought that the EU would fall back romantically into America’s arms after Trump’s defeat. But they were so wrong. I would describe it as a terrible, terrible one night stand.”

But while there were the predictable instances of open ‘America-bashing’, as one Renew MEP put it, by The Left, and unadulterated culture war statements about ‘climate and gender ideology’ from nationalist and far right deputies, all three groups on the fringes also brought forward prominent members who engaged constructively.

“In the light of recent events, [they] need to understand that partners and allies consult one another before making strategic decisions. The world is no longer uni-or bi-polar and acting alone is no longer a recipe for success” Renew Group shadow rapporteur Dragoș Tudorache

The Left Group’s Vice-Chair Marisa Matías (PT) argued that transatlantic relations “should be based on equality, therefore the EU must have the capabilities for autonomy and have strategic resources”, adding “we need to be allies and must not simply be an arm of the US.”

Marco Zanni, Chair of the ID Group called EU-US cooperation a “pillar of democratic balance in the world”, but he warned that “chronic misunderstanding” by the EU’s leadership of political dynamics had been hampering relations. “Trump wasn’t the problem, and Biden isn’t either”.

Zanni continued by arguing that “for the Americans, regardless of their political leanings, there are clear red lines. National interest comes above all else. We have to be aware of this, and we can’t base our policies on which administration’s policy we like the best.”

And Roberts Zīle (LV), Vice-Chair of the ECR Group, stated “NATO works, and any attempts to destroy it are dangerous. A strategic autonomy will take decades. We have no other major partner who shares our values but the US. We have to get rid of the obstacles in our relationship.”

The most cited of obstacles, and a source of disappointment with the current US administration on a par with the foreign policy ones mentioned above, concerned trade.

The aspect of transatlantic trade is present in the report by means of the opinion of the Committee on International Trade (INTA) and its Chair Bernd Lange.

The German Social Democrat was talking about former President Trump’s punitive tariffs on steel and aluminium exports from the EU which President Biden has so far kept in place, when he warned that “if we are unable to find a solution, we shall double our countermeasures by the end of November”, adding “that’s why I can only say to the American side, please, let’s find a similar compromise to the one we found in the Airbus/Boeing case.”

“For the Americans, regardless of their political leanings, there are clear red lines. National interest comes above all else. We have to be aware of this, and we can’t base our policies on which administration’s policy we like the best” Marco Zanni, Chair of the European Parliament's ID Group

But trade also offered the brightest hope for many MEPs, in the shape of the new Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council (TTC) which held its inaugural session in Pittsburgh, PA, last week.

The Vice-Chair of the Delegation for relations with the United States (D-US), Miapetra Kumpula-Natri (S&D, FI) expressed her hope that the TTC would be able to establish “good rules on human-centric AI”, and help concerted climate action by virtue of common green standards.

She also welcomed the report’s suggestion to “create a parliamentary subcommittee on tech and trade with the delegation to complement the executive part of the TTC, and to exercise democratic oversight in the EP”.

Identifying other challenges that should be addressed in the TTC context, the leader of the German CSU delegation in the EPP, Angelika Niebler, commented:

“It would be particularly necessary, for example, to find joint solutions for the gaps in the supply chains for semiconductors and to ramp up semiconductor production”. Reporting from home, she added that “at BMW, Opel and VW, production is already being throttled due to the lack of chips, and entire conveyor belts are at a standstill. We urgently need to act here.”

But the main foreign policy lesson for the majority groups was that the EU now had to put her money where her mouth is on strategic autonomy. 

D-US delegation Chair Radosław Sikorski (EPP) told the house: “I was in Washington in July, and I must tell you that the Americans are obsessed with their rivalry with China. It’s the only thing Republicans and Democrats agree on.”

“I was in Washington in July, and I must tell you that the Americans are obsessed with their rivalry with China... if it came to something kinetic out there, our ally might not be able to protect us. As a former defence minister I have to tell you, defence systems take decades to develop. Therefore, I beg you, colleagues, we need to get serious about European defence right now” D-US delegation Chair Radosław Sikorski

With tensions in the Far East rising, and China having pledged to take Taiwan by force ‘if needs be’, Sikorski warned that “if it came to something kinetic out there, our ally might not be able to protect us.”

He concluded: “As a former defence minister I have to tell you, defence systems take decades to develop. Therefore, I beg you, colleagues, we need to get serious about European defence right now.”

Renew Group’s Hilde Vautmans (BE), who had drafted the recent INI report on a new EU-China strategy put it even more bluntly:

“It’s time to get our act together. The US will not keep on paying the lion’s share of NATO. We must play our part and launch our own European army”. Not to weaken NATO, she suggested, but to strengthen it: “we’ve had enough wake-up calls.”

Perhaps veteran Green/EFA MEP and Chair of the EU-China delegation Reinhard Bütikofer had a fitting forecast for the way ahead for EU-US relations when he remarked that, “the building up of a new transatlantic relationship is not going to be sprint but rather a long and arduous cross-country run with ups and downs.”

One of the bumps in the road might turn up on Thursday, when MEPs will debate, and later vote on a resolution on, “the state law relating to abortion in Texas, USA.”

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