January 10, 2013

2013: A Fateful Year

Security issues will test transatlantic co-operation, though the prospects for a free-trade deal look good.

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to EuropeanVoice

The year ahead promises both challenges and opportunities for transatlantic relations. Afghanistan and Syria pose new tests for NATO. The looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear weapons programme could fray the Alliance’s solidarity. But 2013 may also be the year that Washington and Brussels begin the integration of the world’s two largest economies. The next 12 months could prove to be consequential for both security and economic ties between Europe and the United States.

After two decades of talking about it, the European Union and the US may finally launch free-trade negotiations this year. More than half (58%) of the American public thinks that increased trade with the European Union would be good for the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey, confirming earlier findings in both Europe and the US by the German Marshall Fund. And an EU-US deal would actually prove more beneficial to the US than the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that it is currently pursuing in Asia, according to separate studies by the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels and the Peterson Institute in Washington.

So the politics and the economics of such an accord seem aligned. On the security side, however, there are challenges ahead.

Both Pew and GMF surveys show that Americans and Europeans continue to back NATO, but they want out of Afghanistan, currently a joint US-European military operation. How that disengagement is managed may shape future public support for NATO.

The future European and American role in the Syrian quagmire may also test transatlantic co-operation. Publics on both sides of the Atlantic are clear; they do not want their governments to get involved. More than three in five (63%) Americans say Uncle Sam has no responsibility to do anything in Syria, according to a recent Pew survey. And an earlier GMF poll found 59% of Europeans said, stay out of Syria completely. How European and American governments square their interest in stability in the region with their public’s antipathy for involvement in yet another war could prove a serious challenge.

Iran could also trouble transatlantic cohesion. Europe and the United States have worked closely in ratcheting up economic sanctions on Tehran in recent years. But the day of reckoning on the Iranian nuclear-weapons programme may come this year.

More than half (56%) of Americans want the Obama administration to take a firm stand against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, according to a recent Pew survey. And only 28% of Americans who oppose Iran’s nuclear programme are willing to accept a nuclear armed Iran. Significantly more French (48%), Germans (41%) and British (40%) would tolerate Tehran having nuclear weapons. The US president, Barack Obama, has ruled out containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The American public seems to agree; the European public is less convinced.

Complicating all these challenges are the domestic diversions facing both Europe and the US. The eurozone crisis will continue to absorb the time and energies of European leaders, while diverting public attention and complicating almost all governmental initiatives. On the other side of the Atlantic, the American public is increasingly isolationist: 83% say the country should pay less attention to problems overseas and more attention to problems at home. Such sentiment has grown by ten percentage points in the past decade.

European leaders have long fretted about Washington’s declining engagement with Brussels. But the issues confronting the transatlantic relationship in 2013 suggest a possible re-engagement on a range of issues. How those challenges get resolved and if those opportunities are realised could determine the trajectory of US-European relations for years to come.