How the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement Can Succeed

02/04/2013 10:00 am ET | Updated Apr 06, 2013
  • András Simonyi Managing Director, Center for Transatlantic Relations (CTR), Johns Hopkins University

There is a buzz, even excitement in the Atlantic community. Europe and America are bracing for a Comprehensive (Free) Trade Agreement (TAFTA). There is a lot of coming and going between the EU Commission, its governing body, and the U.S. administration these days, pointing towards the probability that the negotiations will soon begin. Elites across the great blue water suddenly look with excitement at one another, rediscovering -- surprise surprise -- that we are after the closest of close relatives. The whining in Europe about America pivoting away from its traditional ally is somewhat subsiding, making room for a much more optimistic voices about the U.S. caring about the old continent.

Our Center has long been advocating for a reinvention of the transatlantic relationship, which no doubt needs to be overhauled. It should have undergone a major reconstruction, not just a facelift, years ago. The once preeminent Transatlantic institution, NATO, must find its new raison d'être, but even then, it might not or perhaps should not regain the same role it had in the Cold War, namely being the glue of the relationship. A new vehicle that will carry the Atlantic community way into the 21st century must be created. TAFTA can be that vehicle. The implications of an agreement would be huge. It would create a free trade zone for the two most important economies of the world, which will include Canada and hopefully Mexico as well. It is the forerunner of a future Atlantic Common Market. This can be the glue that will have an enormous impact on the relationship in the broadest sense. It can be the new "NATO," the new institution of choice for the community.

All this is good news, lest the parties miss the opportunity, if leaders of America and Europe fail to understand that TAFTA will have implications way beyond the transatlantic community. It would be sad if the historic importance of such an agreement eluded them. It can still all go wrong, if the intricacies of the negotiations are not understood, if special interest groups torpedo or unnecessarily slow down the negotiations. Leadership is needed on both sides to understand, that a big dose of political courage will be necessary to get over hurdles, some of which are known but some will only emerge in the process. Lots of political capital must spent, and spent well.

All stakeholders must be involved early. They all have to take ownership of the project. The U.S. administration and its partner, the EU commission, must involve the European Parliament and Congress. Member states of the EU are to be kept abreast of the talks, but their leaders must also show leadership and put narrow-minded national interests aside. The representatives of business and the labor organizations, energy companies and environmental groups, the movie business and artists must all be part of the debate. Having all these on the side of the agreement can seal the deal. Not having their support, could kill it. It has now become a slogan that the U.S. administration wants to get this done on one tank of gas. That tank of gas will only be enough if the imaginary vehicle is not overloaded and is given a roadmap as clear, as smooth and as short as possible.

Years of experience shows that the thrust of the work leading to such agreements is done by diligent bureaucracies. They are the ones who write the instructions for the negotiators, they are the ones who have the knowledge of the legal/regulatory frameworks.Contrary to their image of being useless and bloated, they have time and again proved to be inventive and effective and come up with solutions to get out of gridlock. Politicians must back them up and give them the possibility to jointly find answers to problems, which can easily get stuck in politics. They deserve far more credit than they get, and they must be given a clear but broad mandate so that they will be able to find reasonable compromise.

Hopefully the rolodexes are loaded with the right names, telephone numbers and emails in Washington and Brussels. For when the negotiations get started in earnest, all the personal relationships built over the past decades will matter from President Barack Obama and leaders of the EU, secretaries and commissioners, senators, congressmen and parliamentarians, the negotiators and holders of the "dossiers," captains of industry and think tanks alike.

It will not be easy, but we have reasons to be optimistic!