It feels like the "Relationship Status" -- to use Facebook terminology -- between the U.S. and Europe has changed significantly in the last couple of weeks. The decision to launch U.S./EU negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is rightly applauded on both sides of the Atlantic. We are facing tough negotiations on hormone-treated beef and chlorine-rinsed chicken, not to speak of other complex issues, like financial services and privacy. But there's suddenly optimism again about the future of the West.
For some time now, U.S./Europe relations have otherwise been talked about in quite gloomy terms. European defense cuts and the EU's inability so far to make clear its global ambitions, make people in Washington wonder about Europe's seriousness in the area of security. The euro-crisis, usually described in much more drastic and frightening terms in Washington than in Brussels, and the uncertainties about the overall direction of the European project, make some very reasonable Americans, otherwise friends of Europe, talk about the old continent more as a serious problem rather than as a serious partner.
At the same time, Europeans worry about a lack of American political leadership and commitment in places like the Middle East and North Africa. Washington's "Pivot to Asia" touched a sensitive nerve. America's -- just like Europe's -- main focus in the last years was on the domestic economic agenda. This is understandable, but Europeans nevertheless are alarmed about anything that looks like an American withdrawal from their part of the world.
In addition, the political polarization and gridlock in Washington, once famous for its bipartisanship, amazes and unsettles not only Americans but also Europeans. It is worth to repeat over and over again: there is a basic lack of understanding in Europe of the American system of governance and, in particular, the important role of Congress. This is unfortunately paralleled by ignorance, in many quarters of American power, of the workings of Brussels. Nevertheless, most Europeans understand that a less-than-effective Washington spells trouble for the world.
The perspective of a TTIP, however, has changed the atmosphere. For all the questions and worries, there's now also renewed strategic vision. Again using Facebook terminology, the transatlantic partners seem to suddenly have gone from "It's complicated" to something like "Engaged".
There are several reasons to be excited about a transatlantic trade deal. The U.S. and the EU together represent about half of the world's GDP and about a third of the world's trade flows. It would bring down trading barriers between the two biggest economies in the world. It would support exports and job creation on both sides of the Atlantic and give a strong boost to both the American and the European economies.
A U.S./EU deal would also set global standards and rules for free trade, an aspect of enormous significance considering the broader lack of progress on global trade rules and the risk of future spread of protectionism and other threats to free world trade.
The most significant effect of an agreement may however be felt on the broader geo-strategic level. At a time when global power is gradually shifting from the West to the East and the South, there is a need for renewed energy between the U.S. and Europe. Washington and Brussels have a chance to cement themselves together in a strategic inter-continental economic partnership that would be deeper and stronger than anything we have yet seen. This, no doubt, would amount to the reinventing of the transatlantic relationship.
It's not just about protecting American and European economic interests in a changing world. TTIP is also about projecting the rule of law. As economic power shifts, so does political influence. If we want to protect and promote our ideas of freedom, democracy, human rights and tolerance, a strengthened partnership would be a good place to start. These basic values are too often taken for granted in both Europe and the US. But the west is not necessarily and automatically the most attractive societal model in the eyes of rising and struggling nations in other parts of the world. Even in our parts of the world we see a temptation to resort to populism and autocratic governance. We need to renew our confidence and stand up for our democratic values.
The road to a U.S./EU deal may be hard. Sensitive issues such as agricultural subsidies will be on the table. Negotiations will be both complex and difficult.
But while working on the details, negotiators and political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic will need to keep a big perspective. While giving and taking on particular issues of disagreement, what should really be on their mind is the broader common role of America and Europe when global power is shifting. Some powerful arguments may be made on part of the chlorine-washed chicken. What it's really about, however, is transatlantic leadership in a changing world.