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The EU-US summit: Time to focus on geopolitics

Transatlantic affairs / COMMENTARY
Georg Riekeles , Frances G. Burwell

Date: 20/10/2023
The last EU-US summit in June 2021 focused on reaffirming the transatlantic partnership after some difficult years. Two years later, the summit today (20 October) must address the geopolitical challenges facing EU and the US in an increasingly hostile and divided world. Transatlantic diplomacy can no longer be solely about the now strengthened partnership itself. Instead, its primary task is to build joint efforts to ensure a more secure and resilient place for our citizens, in keeping with our democratic values.

The 2021 summit faced a relatively peaceful world. At this 2023 summit, the EU and the US must demonstrate their determination and close coordination in their responses to the Hamas strike on Israel and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most immediately, this will require holding Israel to the standards of international law, as it justifiably seeks to remove the threat of Hamas. Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a key catalyst in energising the US-EU partnership, fostering cooperation on sanctions, export controls, and supplies of armaments. This summit should leave no doubt about the continued willingness of the EU and US to supply weapons and financial support to Ukraine for as long as needed.

These are not the only conflicts and tensions challenging the EU and the US. This geopolitical summit must also show unity towards Iran and others who would encourage terrorism and foster extremism. The EU and US must also look beyond physical threats to focus — domestically and abroad — on disruptive perils online, from cyberattacks to state-sponsored disinformation.

The summit cannot just be about defending against aggression. It should also be an opportunity for the EU and the US to make a positive case for the rule of law and democracy and the critical nature of these values in making societies and economies prosperous and resilient. The EU and US have already reached out to like-minded countries — Japan, South Korea, Australia, and others — that share these values. Now, it is time to address other democracies, such as India, Brazil, and other regional powers, as well as developing countries that are much more ambivalent toward democratic principles.

In today’s tense geopolitical moment, such outreach is essential to making the EU and US more secure and resilient. Such a strategy will also require genuine assistance from developing countries, especially in helping them weather the green and digital transitions. The small projects initiated under the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC) can only be the beginning. 

Much of the summit will focus on how to make the transatlantic economies stronger and more competitive, especially when faced with the challenges of non-market economies, such as China. The EU and US need to progress in their negotiations on critical raw materials and greening the global steel market in the face of Chinese overcapacity. But they should also think about how to include others in these arrangements. As the EU and US seek to make their economies more secure, they should ensure that developing economies are not collateral damage. 

Technology offers another avenue for engaging these countries. The EU and the US have started a necessary conversation over the risks involved in generative and frontier artificial intelligence (AI). Leaders may adopt more initiatives in this area at the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park in the UK, which will be in November. But there are many uses of AI that offer opportunities, including in agriculture, research, health care, and public services. Used with care and training, these can help many developing countries. Will China provide these opportunities, perhaps in a new version of the Belt and Road Initiative, or will the EU, the US, and their partners, provide the support and training that could make a real difference? The summit this week in Washington provides an opportunity to demonstrate a transatlantic willingness to assist others in a safe, positive, and open digital transition. 

Finally, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28 taking place on 30 November, the EU-US summit must demonstrate a common commitment to climate goals. This is not only about assistance for climate mitigation but also about the openness and accountability of climate policies on both sides of the Atlantic, ensuring that subsidy schemes and clean energy standards are fair and do not create additional challenges for other countries. For the EU especially, its southern neighbours could be a huge source of renewable energy. Any EU-US arrangements on clean tech that may emerge at the summit should be constructed to encourage this trade and engage developing countries with initiatives designed to build greener energy markets. 

The EU-US relationship has come a long way since 2021. The TTC, which was created at the June 2021 summit, has proven to be an innovative and productive mechanism for addressing bilateral transatlantic tensions and building consensus and relationships among officials. While focused mostly on emerging tech and supply chain issues, it has also organised real cooperation on critical issues such as export controls against Russia. The EU and US should now consider how to make the TTC an even stronger, more legitimate, and perennial mechanism of transatlantic cooperation, for instance, through a small permanent team and parliamentary dialogue. But more broadly, the EU and the US must look beyond their relationship to cooperate on building a broader coalition to address today’s geopolitical challenges. This October summit is the place to start.

Frances G. Burwell is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center and a Senior Director at McLarty Associates.

Georg Riekeles is Associate Director and Head of Europe’s Political Economy programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
Brendan Smialowski/AFP

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