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How to ‘Trump proof’ the transatlantic relationship?

How to ‘Trump proof’ the transatlantic relationship?

by host
How to ‘Trump proof’ the transatlantic relationship?

LEUVEN, Belgium — In this medieval city just east of Brussels, American and European officials have one question on their minds: What to do about Donald Trump?

Over a two-day summit this week focused on trade and technology, the likes of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and European Commission trade czar Valdis Dombrovskis will flaunt the rekindled transatlantic friendship.

According to a draft communiqué seen by POLITICO, they will announce joint support for next generation telecommunication and semiconductor projects. They will champion so-called sustainable trade practices and stronger links around transatlantic supply chains. And they will coordinate more closely on artificial intelligence standards to push back against China and corral new forms of the technology made famous by OpenAI’s ChatGPT.

Yet, privately, European Union and United States officials acknowledge this week’s gathering of the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council, or TTC, has become a hostage to fortune. 

The European Commission’s point people — including Dombrovskis and Margrethe Vestager, the bloc’s digital chief — will change after the bloc’s parliamentary elections in June even if its president, Ursula von der Leyen, is expected to secure a second term. 

More importantly, a prospective Trump administration would almost certainly push an “American First” agenda — one that he championed vocally during his first term, and that Joe Biden’s administration has continued, albeit in a less confrontational manner.

These shifting political winds will buffet this week’s gathering in Leuven. As part of a draft of this week’s joint statement, both sides said they would now seek outsiders’ opinions to “build on the foundation of the TTC for future administrations.”

Amid photo ops and announcements, policymakers and politicians are seeking a legacy for renewed transatlantic ties that were strained to breaking point in Trump’s first term. 

Others wonder aloud how a change in the White House might alter the EU-U.S. relationship, which has become embroiled in trade feuds over steel and how much the West should collectively combat China’s technological advances.

“There’s no political differences between the Republicans or Democrats when it comes to trade and technology,” said Phil Hogan, a former EU trade commissioner who helped to broach closer ties between Brussels and Washington in the final stages of Trump’s tenure in the White House.

“The only difference is the tactics,” he added. 

Whatever you do, don’t mention Trump

Over the two-day summit that starts Thursday — in a Belgian town that hosts a world-leading semiconductor research lab — leaders will highlight how the twice-yearly event has improved transatlantic diplomacy without name-checking the political storms that lie ahead.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, U.S. and EU trade officials, working via the transatlantic body, fast-tracked joint sanctions against the Kremlin that entered force within weeks. 

After Vestager shared a two-page memo last May with Gina Raimondo, the U.S. Commerce Secretary, on policing so-called generative artificial intelligence, those discussions morphed into a collective G7 response, made public within months.

From sustainable trade to cybersecurity standards, officials and outside experts agree Brussels and Washington are more aligned, even as disputes over EU digital regulation and the U.S. so-called critical raw materials simmer.

“It’s been very successful,” said Daniel Mullaney, the former top U.S. negotiator on trade issues with Europe, of the TTC. “We’ve had high-level attention, including at the presidential levels, on all of these issues. That’s kept the momentum going.”

The question now is what happens if Trump wins back the White House in November. Even if Biden holds on for a second term, his economic agenda known as “Bidenomics” centers on government subsidies for local industries and a growing wariness of the global trading order.

Current officials dismiss those concerns, claiming Washington will always work closely with allies.

“Whomever is going to sit in the White House or in the Berlaymont building will have to factor in the fact that this trade and economic relationship between the US and EU is just too important,” said Leopoldo Rubinacci, deputy director general at the European Commission’s trade department.

Still, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, has warned that he would impose a 10 percent tariff on all imports. In his first term, Trump also slapped tariffs on many European goods, and used the State Department to browbeat EU allies into turning against Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant.

If history is anything to go by, a new MAGA administration would not bode well for transatlantic ties.

In the build-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2020, for instance, Brussels’ overtures to the Trump administration to start the TTC were mostly ignored. It was only during the early days of Biden’s White House — with its “America is Back” messaging — that rekindling the transatlantic relationship became a priority.

TTC revamp

Be it Biden or Trump, officials acknowledge the TTC needs a makeover.

Many concede that planning for the twice-yearly summits has slowed everything down. On thorny issues like the fight over steel tariffs, these regular meetings have proved fruitless despite closer personal ties between top officials. 

Global events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Hamas attacks on Israel have often veered meetings into wider geopolitical discussions, according to four EU and U.S. officials granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

For some, the TTC has tried to achieve too much. “Perhaps we should focus a little bit more on concrete issues, as having 10 working groups and some sub-groups might be overloading it a bit,” said Bernd Lange, head of the European Parliament’s trade committee, referring to the complex format of this week’s summit.

In the buildup, officials have toyed with changing these ad hoc meetings into a so-called Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Such a format — which Washington has established with other countries — would formalize talks without leading to full-blown trade trade agreements negotiations.

But after the failure of free trade negotiations under the aborted Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, there’s little appetite for such a formal structure, particularly among civil society groups wary of the impact of such trade pacts on consumer rights.

Others argue that, for the TTC to survive political changes, it needs to be embedded in law — and become less political. 

Bill Echikson, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank, said Brussels and Washington should create an apolitical secretariat to continue its work, no matter who resided in either the White House or the Berlaymont building, the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels.

“Whether this would be enough to survive Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, if that happens, I don’t know,” he said. “But it’s worth a try.”

Clothilde Goujard contributed reporting from Brussels.

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