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Perspectives: Shared values are no basis for EU-US cooperation

For many years the EU has talked about shared values as the basis for a strong transatlantic relationship. Attempts to define the values having always failed, it would be better to focus honestly on the realities of the US-EU relationship.

The election of Joe Biden as president of the United States has encouraged the renewal of a favoured Brussels narrative, namely that shared values with the US are the basis for strengthening the relationship. For example in a 1 February speech the European Commission’s executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis said “the EU and the US should join forces to lead a strong coalition of like-minded countries to define the standards and policies of 21st century trade.”

More recently European Parliament’s international trade committee chair Bernd Lange tweeted that “Whichever challenges #EU and #US face, there is no stronger value-based alliance.”

For those of us who worked on the abortive transatlantic TTIP negotiations of 2013 to 2016 the words ring hollow from repetition. The same talk of shared values was present then, and wasn’t enough to deliver an agreement.

The fear from that experience is that the talk of shared values is empty, and may be outright damaging in distracting focus. For even where the US and EU are currently in agreement there is a danger this only adds to an increasingly fragmented global trade picture.

There are no specific EU-US shared values

Given the number of times that EU and US figures have suggested that shared values are the basis for the relationship we should be able to define what they are. When we do we quickly realise that anything that is shared by the two is also shared by many others.

For example under the previous administration’s vice president Mike Pence suggested the values were “to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and the rule of law”. These hardly seem specific to the US and EU, indeed Dombrovskis tweeted in December of relations with the Latin America / Caribbean region that “they’re based on shared values such as respect for democracy, human rights & the rule of law.”

Given many countries share values of democracy and the rule of law they hardly seem the basis of such a major relationship as that between the US and EU. When we look into specifics though we make no better progress.

In Lange’s tweet he talks about cooperating on de-escalating tariffs, strengthening workers rights and focusing on tech standards. Trump was a self-declared tariff man and Biden hasn’t yet committed to removing many of them, so it isn’t clear where the shared value is there. Meanwhile significant differences on workers rights remain between US and EU, as they do on tech standards.

This tallies with experience on TTIP, where after some deliberation we were unable to find a single specific shared value between US and EU. Whether agriculture or public procurement, services or intellectual property, there was little commonality beyond a general agreement there needed to be rules.

Shared commitments to rules doesn’t deliver agreement on their content

It is fair to say that the EU and US do have a shared commitment to a predictable set of global trading rules. Unfortunately in practice they have generally believed that their own rules would be the best basis for this. Thus we have the disagreements we see across the range of trade issues.

It isn’t much use to agree that there should be predictable regulations for food, technical standards, data flows and digital taxes if you can’t agree on their content. It has a knock on effect in making any EU and US efforts to form a common front against third countries both weaker and less credible. This is particularly the case when third countries can claim they are behaving just like the EU and US in putting their own domestic interests first.

The needs of such domestic stakeholders in international rules could even count as a shared value, the most important of all in trade policy, though not one either the US or EU wants to admit. Indeed for many US and EU stakeholders the regulatory battle between them is far more important than new rules pertaining to China. Thus the EU prioritise Geographical Indications and the US hormone treated beef and so on, neither wanting to yield at all on such issues in international negotiations. It is not surprising in these circumstances that China can secure new agreements with both US and EU.

The regulatory battles almost enter the realms of absurdity when the US government protests about the impact of EU regulations on US companies who secretly might quite like the predictability. But then for both the EU and US the ability to be seen to stand up for domestic interests on the international stage is something of a virility test.

We need more honesty and less talk of shared values

The political talk of a reset in transatlantic relations has not been widely shared by trade analysts who see these long term problems.

Indeed the EU-US problems may get worse with new commitments by both sides to become increasingly interventionist and probably protectionist in economic policy. These policies may be accompanied by talk of free trade, but this refers primarily to exports which will in turn be affected by the new policies of the other. Thus will we see the chances of further friction and disappointment.

In truth the EU and US trade policy relationship has been more long term frustration than shared values. Resolution, if that is what both sides genuinely want, would require hard truths and difficult choices. For a start both would have to admit that the agricultural standards battle with the other has been more important than any joint global venture. This doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.

At the very least it would be good to simply drop the talk of shared values which has served to hide problems for so many years. The EU relationship with the US is just as difficult as that with China, as is similarly the case for the US. Perhaps just starting with that admission will be helpful in resetting explanations, for the future of the WTO may depend on moving beyond failed homilies to real agreements.


 David Henig runs the column ‘Perspectives’ on the politics of global trade for Borderlex. He is also a UK director at the think tank ECIPE.

One Comment


    Thanks David,

    Truly well said.

    I was there throughout the TTIP negotiations close to both the US and the EU side and frankly it was as throughout the entire negotiation period as a high level USTR representative so well predicted in the beginning of the process: “It will be hard to fall in love again!”

    TTIP negotiations took place during the Obama administration and although many Europeans thought this was a great plus, most ignore that Obama only placed Trade on his priority list in the last half of his second term.

    Trade agreements are not popular in the US and it is not something the Biden administration can neglect.

    What the TTIP trade negotiations did show is that there are many technical areas, where the two administrations can, in a win-win context, progress. Whereas, on all the big market access issues where political or regulatory concessions are required it is not realistic to expect any moves from the US or the EU.

    Indeed, let us be honest. We have just as many shared values with the Chinese and just as many differences in how to solve common problems than with any other major world economy.

    Thinking, the US has a true preference for the old continent is living in the past ignoring the move of the economic power balance and the effects this has on those you used to call your friends.
    Just the geopolitics of the Green Deal could blow any claimed friendship.

    Morten Petersen

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