In Final Europe Trip, Obama Outlines Vision of Continued Transatlantic Cooperation

24 November 2016

Outgoing US President Barack Obama met last week with the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain to discuss the future of transatlantic cooperation, broaching the subjects of economic partnership and integration in the wake of the impending leadership change in Washington and upcoming elections in certain EU member states.

The trip to Berlin represented Obama’s sixth and final visit to the German capital before he passes the baton to President-elect Donald Trump next January. The presidential transition is slated to be a significant shift not just in terms of party – Obama is a Democrat, while Trump is a Republican – but also in leadership styles and policy approaches.

It also followed a heated campaign between Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton that brought to the fore deep tensions within the American electorate on issues ranging from income inequality to social policy. Similar debates have also been playing out across the Atlantic within various EU member states, where nationalist parties are increasingly gaining hold in some quarters. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 November 2016)

During his trip, Obama called on European leaders to voice, maintain, and protect the values common to both regions, “our commitment to democracy; our commitment to rule of law; our commitment to the dignity of all people,” in cooperation with the incoming administration.

“Whoever the US President is, whoever the Chancellor of Germany is, we need to remember that,” he urged, in a nod to the upcoming transition back home as well as next year’s German elections. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced on Sunday that she will run for a fourth term in next September’s federal elections. Merkel has already spent 11 years in office, having first taken up the post in 2005, and has long been one of Obama’s closest international partners.

Defending shared values

The past several months have seen a tide of anti-globalisation sentiment across various countries, with populist pressures shaping domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic, as demonstrated in the vote on behalf of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in June. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 November 2016)

More recently, this movement has also been reflected in the outcome of the presidential election in the US, where President-elect Donald Trump promised in his campaign to move away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among a host of other promises. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 November 2016)

Speaking in Berlin last Friday, Obama called for making a greater effort to reach all of those who feel that they have lost out in the broader globalisation trends.

“For those of us who believe in a world where we're interdependent, that believes in mutual interests and mutual respect between nations, it’s particularly important that we reach out to everybody in our countries – those who feel disaffected, those who feel left behind by globalisation – and address their concerns in constructive ways, as opposed to more destructive ways,” he said in the German capital.

With regards to the UK’s planned talks for leaving the EU, Obama expressed “hope that negotiations over the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU will be conducted in a smooth and orderly and transparent fashion, and preserve as closely as possible the economic and political and security relationships between the UK and EU.”

The UK government has said that it aims to begin those talks by the end of March 2017, even as the courts continue to consider whether it has the legal authority to do so without first obtaining parliamentary approval. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 November 2016)

In remarks delivered in a joint press conference with Obama, the German chancellor similarly called for improving globalisation, rather than abandoning it entirely.

“We must seize the opportunity to shape globalisation based on our values and our ideas,” Merkel said, according to a White House transcript. Globalisation “needs to be given a human face,” she added.

“But we cannot allow to fall back into pre-globalisation times. So this conclusion of trade agreements that go beyond the scope of mere tariff agreements, customs agreements, are most important,” she said, citing the EU’s recent signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada as a step in the right direction. (See Bridges Weekly, 3 November 2016)

Obama, Merkel make case for TTIP

Also hanging in the balance is the future of the bilateral EU-US trade talks, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The negotiations have been underway for three years, with the conclusion of the most recent negotiating round in October in New York City. (See Bridges Weekly, 13 October 2016)

The planned accord would feature improved market access in goods, services, and public procurement. It would also tackle topics such as investment and investor protections.

Furthermore, officials say, the accord would include chapters designed to support a more inclusive and sustainable brand of globalisation – such as by helping small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) better participate in trade. Negotiators have also been working on including chapters related to labour and the environment.

Together, the EU and the US account for one-third of global trade and almost half of global GDP. In 2015, the volume of trade between the US and the EU amounted to €620 billion (US$656 billion), the most substantial between any two partners globally.

The pace of the TTIP talks has been sluggish over the last several months, a fact that negotiators have acknowledged specifically when referring to gaps in market access offers tabled to date. However, they have lauded the progress made in various aspects of the deal’s text. (See Bridges Weekly, 21 July 2016)

The TTIP talks have also been met with wavering popular support, particularly among those in the EU advocating for the US to make greater concessions. They have also faced the challenge of the broader public scepticism on the overall merits of trade accords. (See Bridges Weekly, 9 September 2016)

“The negotiations on agreements like TTIP have been challenging, and obviously at a moment when there’s concerns about globalisation and the benefits that accrue to particular people, it is important that those negotiations and channels of communication remain,” said Obama.

An op-ed published in the German business news magazine “Wirtschaftswoche” co-authored by Obama and Merkel argues that the economic rationale behind the deal remains strong, and suggests that it will also help cement their shared perspective on other key areas of the transatlantic relationship.

TTIP is “an agreement that knits our economies closer together, based on rules that reflect our shared values, would help us grow and remain globally competitive for decades to come,” the piece says.

At present, the fate of the TTIP under a new US administration remains uncertain. The president-elect has not explicitly indicated what he intends to do with TTIP or elaborated on his approach towards relations with Europe on various other levels. (See Bridges Weekly, 17 November 2016)

However, Merkel suggested that the momentum and need for a deal such as TTIP still holds promise for the future.

“They cannot be stopped, those negotiations. But we’ll keep what we have achieved so far, and I'm absolutely certain that one day we will come back to what we have achieved and build on it,” said Merkel.

ICTSD reporting; “Visiting Europe, Obama Warns Against Rise of ‘Crude Sort of Nationalism’,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, 15 November 2016; “Angela Merkel to stand for fourth term as chancellor in 2017,” THE GUARDIAN, 20 November 2016; “Obama’s last trip: Addressing a divided Europe,” CNN, 16 November 2016; “Angela Merkel to Stand for Re-Election as German Chancellor,” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, 20 November 2016; “Obama sets off on farewell trip to Europe in shadow of president-elect,” THE GUARDIAN, 14 November 2016.

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