This article is part of our special report Navigating through the EU’s uncertain waters: GLOBSEC 2019.
America cannot have close security, intelligence and technology ties with Europe unless the EU cuts ties with Chinese tech giant Huawei and embraces “Western telecom industry”, the US ambassador to the European Union told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Gordon Sondland also said the EU is “quite protectionist by nature” but added he expects the new European Commission, due to take office in November, to “start on a fresh page and on a new footing with the United States”.
Gordon Sondland has been the United States Ambassador to the EU since July 2018. Following his appearance at this year’s Globsec forum in Bratislava, EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski caught up with him.
Mr. Sondland, you once compared Brussels and Washington to competing businesses, but competitors can easily become foes. How would you describe the current EU-US relationship?
I don’t think we’re foes any more than General Motors and Ford are foes. They’re friendly competitors, they’re each trying to gain market share – and I think so do the US and the EU. They are each trying to gain market share and currently the EU has a greater percentage of the US market share, than the US does of the European market – and we’re trying to rebalance that. It makes total sense to me.
But we in Europe see the transatlantic relationship restrained. Do you think that China could become the uniting factor for the EU and the US?
It should become a uniting factor, because I think, I have never questioned the intent of the EU and I don’t believe the EU ever questions the intent of the United States. At the end of the day, we all want to get a better deal. We all want to do better on trade.
China, on the other hand, I think both of us question the intent of China. They’ve built their country over the last 30 years through theft of intellectual property through forced technology transfer. They did it the old-fashioned way – they took it. And we don’t do that to each other and we don’t want the world to operate in that way, so I think when we’re together as partners in dealing with China we’re much stronger.
But would you agree with Huawei’s recent statement that the US is putting ‘unprecedented’ pressure on EU governments?
No, we’re not putting unprecedented pressure on them. What we’re doing is, we’re saying ‘your technology, you can do what you like’. First of all, we don’t tell people what to do. We tell people what our perspective is and what the future looks like in terms of their relationship with us vis a vis information sharing, intelligence cooperation and a whole host of other interconnections that we currently enjoy today.
As the world becomes more and more reliant on this 5G technology, which it will, one’s entire country will operate on 5G – not just your telephone, your cell phone, but the cars, the aeroplanes, the buildings, the hospitals, the schools, the government, the military – everything will be interconnected. And to this extent, our friends want to be as closely interconnected with us as they are today.
We can’t risk being interconnected with someone who has vulnerable technology. So we’re telling them ‘this is our perspective, we don’t want you to put yourself in a position where we can’t continue to be closely tied as we are today because you made the wrong technology choice’. So that is really what we’re talking about.
How exactly do you feel the EU should deal with Huawei then?
The EU should subscribe to what is now being developed by what I would call the Western telecom industry, which is sort of akin to a good housekeeping seal of approval. It is producing a list of criteria that any country considering a purchase of this equipment or management of their equipment should comply with this sort of checklist of best practices. And as long as the countries buy equipment or engage with companies that comply with this list, they should be fine. And there are going to be a lot of companies that comply with that list.
Mainly American ones?
No. European ones, Korean ones, American ones, companies from all over the world will comply. I am not sure Huawei will ever comply with that list – but it could. We never know. The hope is that governments would adopt the list as a standard and this is not so much about a country or a supplier, but an objective list of criteria you set.
You recently said President Trump is patiently waiting for a new EU Commission. Earlier you described the current Commission as out of touch. What are your expectations for the next term?
A lot of what needs to be said by both sides, has been said and is well documented in the public record including some old quotes that you just pulled up. I think, what is more productive now is to let the European Union continue with its process to select its new leadership and then start on a fresh footing with that leadership. Because as you recall, when President Trump took office, he took office with the EU having an incumbent leadership already in place, now they’re starting fresh.
I believe everyone I have spoken with, who could be a potential leader of the Commission or who could have an important portfolio within the Commission, every single individual that I’ve spoken with, wants to start on a on a fresh page and on a new footing with the United States – and we welcome that.
Washington accused some EU members of an anti-US agenda, who was addressed by that?
Well, the EU is by nature quite protectionist. The EU has a different philosophy on trade than the United States does and that some countries do. And in fact, a lot of the member countries themselves, were they able to operate on a bilateral trade basis, which they are not, being a member of the EU, would probably have a view more closely akin with that of the US than the EU itself does.
Who are you referring to?
I’m not going to say, but good try!
One of those countries seem to be France, who recently told the Commission it should not sign trade agreements with countries that don’t respect the Paris Agreement. How does Washington feel about that?
We are more interested in substance rather than form. The Paris Agreement is all about form and not about substance. What is about substance is, are you talking the talk, which is the Paris Agreement or are you walking the walk.
There are signatories to the Paris Agreement that are not really engaging today in sustainable practices yet they tout the fact that they are a member of the Paris Agreement. We, on the other hand, have eight or nine of our 50 states that already exceed Paris standards, many of them are on their way. One of our states, Texas, is the fourth largest producer of wind energy in the world – just that one state.
We are the centre of sustainable innovation – not Europe, not Asia – the United States. Most innovation that occurs, that will create green energy, comes from the United States. So we’d rather focus on the results, than clinging to a failed agreement that disadvantages certain countries and advantages others.
Coming back to EU-US trade relations. Do you expect a negotiated solution between the US and the European Commission when it comes to the Airbus-Boeing dispute?
I think that’s very possible. Once the appraisal or the verdict is rendered as to the amount of damages, I think we’re certainly prepared to discuss how the European Union wants to handle those damages.
Would you agree with Mr. Trump that the UK is better off outside of the EU?
What I think the president has said is that this is really a sovereign decision of the UK. He has his personal feelings. Everyone on the planet has their personal feelings about it, whether the UK should or should not be part of the EU. But once the people of the UK have spoken and have made a decision to leave then it’s really up to them to figure out how to leave.
What is in the US interests though once they have left, regardless of what pathway they choose, is that they don’t do anything to prevent themselves from entering into new agreements with both the EU and the US, or to prevent the US from entering into new agreements with them and with the EU. We want them to keep as as many options open as possible, whichever pathway they pick to leave.
There is also discord between Brussels and Washington when it comes to security and defence. Isn’t the fact that the EU steps up its development of defence projects actually something that Washington was asking for a long time?
Yes, but with several provisions. Number one: We want everyone who has not made their commitment to NATO to fulfil it. In other words, if you’re a member country and you haven’t hit your 2% but somehow you’re able to find money to do a European project, first pay your bill that you owe and then, if there is money leftover, then go ahead and do it.
The second provision is, once you do spend money on non-NATO types of things, make sure they’re NATO compatible and compliant. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s a NATO asset or an EU asset, when a conflict breaks out, you’re gonna want them all to be able to operate harmoniously. And if European member states and the EU as an entity are developing weapons systems or transportation systems or whatever that are not NATO compatible, that don’t fit the box, then what you’re doing is you’re creating essentially a whole parallel system which in our lifetimes, yours and mine, will never have the capability that NATO has.
It’s a foolish expenditure and it really doesn’t help NATO, which everyone is now at that point contributing their 2%. So they’re sort of going at cross purposes. That’s what we don’t want to see.
But have you received signals from from the EU side that there is a prospect to allow that country participation in those projects?
We received the exact opposite signals. We received signals that third country participation – and I am speaking of research and development dollars – third country participation in European projects is going to be very problematic.
And when you say ‘third country’, what we’re really talking about is the United States. Yes, there are other countries involved, but the United States is the primary country that collaborates with the EU in the United States using US R&D dollars.
We want our companies to be treated the same way in Europe as European companies are treated in the United States – no better no worse.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]