For many, the nomination of Antony Blinken as the next US secretary of state promises a welcome return to a functional transatlantic relationship. In Europe, the work is on to explore how to overcome differences and build common fronts on issues of common interest.

But there has been less focus on how US-EU relations depend on Europe’s policies towards other parts of the world.

This perspective was emphasised by Mr Blinken himself last year in an essay written with the conservative foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan.

They wrote: “Our alliances are out of date in one key respect: The United States has European allies and Asian allies, but no institution links the Asian and European democracies. As China’s Belt and Road Initiative draws Asia, Europe and the Middle East closer together in ways that serve Beijing’s interests, the democracies also need a global perspective.”

Ulrich Speck, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, has drawn attention to this remark, pointing out that “the content of the transatlantic relationship has become much more about the world outside”.

Through “norms, industrial standards, norm-setting”, Mr Speck said, China was pursuing “critical mass on a global scale . . . [And for] critical mass, the countries in the ‘grey zone’ [in between the bigger powers] start to matter — central Asia, south Caucasus, eastern Europe, the Asean countries — all these areas become areas of competition between two kinds of orders”.

The paradox is that multilateral institutions, norm-setting and standards are the EU’s bread and butter, and nowhere more so than in trade policy, the one area of international power where the EU can challenge the US. Yet it was Washington, not Brussels, that for years pursued a multilateral trading structure — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to tie together friendly powers in Asia and lay down firmer US-designed foundations for the regional order into which China was rapidly emerging.

TPP was torpedoed by Donald Trump. But beyond signing bilateral trade deals with Asian countries in recent years, notably with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, the EU has never seemed to have much of a comprehensive alternative to offer the world’s most populated region. Instead, Asia has organised itself, with an amputated version of TPP and, more importantly, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed this month. China, as the most heavyweight economy of RCEP, is likely to have the most influence over its rules.

Why has the EU failed to build attractive structures for international co-operation based on its own values and practices? One reason may be that it is “too diverse”, said Mr Speck: “With more coherence on our side, there would be more impact.”

Another problem is that the EU’s most promising tools may not be well suited for geopolitical strategy. Anu Bradford, Columbia law professor, has identified a “Brussels effect”, in which EU standards are voluntarily adopted elsewhere. The “fundamental logic” of this process “relies on the self-interest of global companies to conform to Brussels’ rules”, she said. “It is not something that involves imposition or coercion. The more geopolitical issues do not follow the market logic that makes companies comply.”

As for exporting its regulatory norms through trade agreements, Ms Bradford argued that “the EU’s record of enforcement is rather dismal”, even on the rule of law within Europe itself.

She also warned that China was entrenching its standards on digital technology. To counter this, the EU and the US should offer alternative technology solutions to developing countries, spell out the “dependency” that signing up to China’s initiatives would entail and collaborate in international standards organisations such as the internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.

But Europe also has work to do at home, Ms Bradford said. “There needs to be real commitment to completing the digital single market. This can be a much less contested way of building regulatory influence [as a] side effect. 

In other words, it may be that the EU’s most important contribution to transatlantic co-operation may be not bilateral or even multilateral, but unilateral.

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