Tipping-Point: a New Era of Transatlantic Relations

By Justin Tomczyk, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Originally published on HuffPost Contributor on behalf of European Horizons

PHOTO: Getty Images

To say that Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been polarizing is an understatement. While President Trump’s campaign and subsequent transition process displayed a shift in US political rhetoric and domestic policy, his election signaled a major departure from decades of foreign policy norms. Cornerstones such as free-trade and collective defense were painted as transactions rather than as the foundations of lasting alliances. The push for global environmental protection, universal gender equality, and the spread of democratic values took a backseat to saber-rattling and a continued expansion of the world’s largest military. Such radical changes within this short timeframe has left our allies questioning the stability and direction of US foreign policy in the near future.

Over the past nine months, the European Union has gradually changed its engagement with the United States. This past March, the European Parliament voted to suspended visa-free travel for US citizens unless citizens of Poland, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania were granted visa-free travel to the US. While the proposal was eventually denied by the European Commission, the parliament’s vote highlights the first of many oncoming fractures between the United States and the European Union and a growing rift in the Transatlantic relationship.

The decision was partially a question of logistics: if the citizens of these five nations can travel, work and reside throughout the EU and are considered EU citizens, it would be inappropriate to exclude them from the EU-US visa-free travel agreement[1]. This situation would be analogous to the EU allowing all US citizens to enter Europe without a visa—unless they were born in the states of Tennessee, North Dakota, and New Jersey. While the US posits that economic disparities and security concerns are too great to grant visa-free tourist travel to citizens of those five European countries, denying them the same visa-free travel rights as other EU citizens implicitly relegates them to a second-class citizen status within the EU—a particularly misplaced move given the many active reform efforts still in progress following the collapse of communism.

But to a greater extent than streamlining logistics or enforcing bureaucracy, the European Parliament’s vote represents a conscious effort to push for the treatment of the European Union as a single political entity by the United States. From referring to Brexit as a “great thing” for the UK[2], to pushing for fragmented, bilateral trade deals with individual member states, the Trump Administration has shown a neglect towards the concept of European unity and entities like the European Single Market. Combined with the chastising of Germany for its trade surplus with the United States[3], the Trump administration has left many in Brussels fearing that the US has become a potential threat to European solidarity rather than a trusted partner in the Transatlantic partnership. The Parliament’s vote effectively forces the US to either recognize the EU as a single sovereign entity—with a single visa regime—or lose the travel privileges granted to U.S. citizens.

Finally, the Parliament’s decision represents a quiet yet critical effort to counteract Euroscepticism in Eastern Europe. While the EU has gone great lengths to integrate former Eastern bloc members into the EU’s Single Market, there is an underlying perception that the EU has conferred its eastern member states statuses inferior to those of older members. The parliament’s resolution represents a concentrated effort by the EU to advocate for its newer members on the international stage, particularly in an area where national governments fail to do so. Even with a “two speed Europe,” all EU member states share equal status in the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

The increasingly divergent policy stances and erratic signaling from the Trump administration over the past nine months has elicited an increasingly confrontational stance from the European Union. If there’s anything that this summer’s meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Trump has demonstrated, it is that European leaders are increasingly willing to fight for the recognition of a unified and sovereign EU. After rejecting President Trump’s eleven attempts to negotiate an exclusively bilateral trade deal between the US and Germany[4], Chancellor Merkel was able to reaffirm both Germany’s participation in the Single Market and the requirement that the U.S. negotiate with the EU as a whole. Coupled with a steady rise of favorability towards the European Union following Marine Le Pen’s defeat and continued economic growth within the Eurozone, it seems that a new sense of enthusiasm and assertiveness will define the Europe’s role in the transatlantic partnership over the coming years. For now, continued dialogue and mutual engagement between Washington and Brussels will be key for ensuring mutual understanding and avoiding future policy diversions.

[1] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-1148_en.htm

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/15/trumps-first-uk-post-election-interview-brexit-a-great-thing

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/05/30/donald-trump-just-threatened-germany-over-trade-heres-what-you-need-to-know/?utm_term=.5fecb204a39f

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/angela-merkel-donald-trump-explain-eu-trade-11-times-germany-chancellor-us-president-a7699591.html

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