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Not an easy ride

November 09, 2012

PAKISTAN and Israel may share the dubious honour of being the only two countries in the world which would have preferred Republican candidate Mitt Romney to win the US elections but here in Europe, Barack Obama’s victory in the polls is cause for celebration.

Top European officials have expressed praise for President Obama, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who called him “a very successful US president”.

In Paris, French President François Hollande said his country and the US would reinforce their cooperation to bring back economic growth and fight unemployment.

In a joint statement European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and his European Council counterpart Herman Van Rompuy have said they looked forward to “continuing the close cooperation established with President Obama over these last four years, to further strengthening our bilateral ties and to jointly addressing global challenges”.

They went on: “Creation of growth and jobs remains a priority for both the US and the EU and we will continue to work with President Obama to unlock the unparalleled potential of the transatlantic market. We are also ready to continue our intense cooperation in foreign policy issues and in the promotion of our common values.”

Obama’s success was also applauded by European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who added that the EU and the US were “the world’s closest allies” with a partnership based on “a wide range of common values and shared interests”.

Similarly effusive comments have poured in from an array of European leaders. But does Europe celebrate too much? Possibly. Europeans are relieved to be dealing with an American ‘moderate’ who is unlikely to bomb Tehran, is relatively critical of Israeli policy towards Palestinians and favours dialogue and engagement with China. Like Obama, Europeans want to bring their forces home from Afghanistan in 2014 if not earlier. And like the US president, Europe cares about climate change as well as the rights of women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities.

Still, the last four years have not been easy for Europeans seeking closer ties with Washington. After a few meetings with his EU counterparts at the start of his first term, Mr Obama made clear that he did not want to attend any more ritualistic meetings with his EU counterparts.

His attitude has changed since but there is no doubt that President Obama is not especially focused on Europe, preferring instead to build closer relations with Asia and Africa.

Washington has in fact aggravated many in Brussels by demanding that the EU take tougher action to deal with the eurozone crisis. And many in Europe were taken by surprise by the US administration’s much-publicised ‘pivot’ to Asia amid clear signals that Washington was more interested in building closer relations with Beijing than with Brussels.

While Washington can be expected to keep up the pressure to avoid nasty shocks from the eurozone, Brussels is also hoping the US reciprocates — for example, by not falling off the fiscal cliff. Europe’s worries about US economic policy have been underlined by the EU economics commissioner Olli Rehn who has warned that “the uncertainty related to the path of US fiscal policy over the coming months remains high”.

European leaders are also inviting the US president to turn his attention to some of the more major issues that have taken a back seat throughout his first term/re-election campaign. “There are so many things that we need to do,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said recently, adding: “We need to kick-start the world economy and I want to see an EU-US trade deal.”

Britain and Germany are hoping that President Barack Obama’s re-election will open the way for the US and Europe to launch trade talks early next year.

The world’s largest trading relationship already accounts for nearly a third of global trade, but weak growth prospects are pushing Brussels and Washington to consider a deal to reduce barriers to companies and unleash new sales and investments.

A group co-chaired by the EU trade commissioner Karel De Gucht and US trade representative Ron Kirk will issue a report in December recommending talks, EU and US officials told Reuters in October.

De Gucht said Obama’s re-election cemented the prospect of such talks and added that he expected a “roadmap for future negotiations” that would seek to cut red tape “to unlock the unparalleled potential of the transatlantic market”.

A deal could increase economic output by 122 billion euros a year for Europe alone and add 0.52 per cent to the EU’s GDP in the long term, according to European Commission estimates.

Transatlantic trade in goods and services is worth $700bn a year and total US annual investment in the EU is higher than in all of Asia. EU investment in the US far outstrips EU investment in India and China combined. A free-trade pact would be the most ambitious in a new generation of sophisticated agreements that go beyond tariffs to take in intellectual property rights, services and regulation. Such a transatlantic trade deal would also reassure Europe that the US administration’s much-publicised shift of priorities to Asia does not mean further neglect of Europe.

Washington has in fact been pressing the EU to step up its engagement with Asian countries, including Pakistan, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. America has also made clear that it expects European governments to take up more of the financial and security burden in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

No one in Brussels is expecting Mr Obama to spend much time energising transatlantic ties. But if talks on EU-US trade liberalisation do take off, relations will become stronger and closer — to start off with in the economics field, but also on political and security issues.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.