Vale de Almeida: Europe matters, is ‘not a problem’ for the US

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Europe should not feel neglected by the United States, as relations with Washington have improved over the past two years. The culture of engagement established by Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton also has trickled down the whole system and will continue in the second Obama mandate, said the EU ambassador to the US, João Vale de Almeida in an interview with EURACTIV.

João Vale de Almeida is the European Union ambassador to the United States. Prior to his appointment to Washington in 2010, he served as the director general for External Relations at the European Commission and played a key role in setting up the new European External Action Service introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon. He has also been head of cabinet for Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

He spoke to EURACTIV Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti in Washington.

You have witnessed the US electoral campaign for the past 18 months. What are the lessons from this extenuating process?

Let me start by saying that this was a very vibrant democratic debate. It was a long campaign by European standards. If you consider the link to the mid-term elections of 2010, it was almost a permanent election campaign for three years and also a very costly one, but overall it was fascinating to watch American democracy unfolding.

I don't think anyone can really understand the United States if one does not witness the electoral campaign for the White House. I am happy to have had this opportunity.

But do you think Europe has something to learn from this process for its 2014 elections?

Frankly, I think the situations are quite different.  The US is not Europe, Europe is not the US. Different contexts, different democratic cultures. There are a number of issues here that are differently appreciated and approached if you compare with Europe. And, to be frank, I don't think we need to learn lessons. We have a vibrant democracy in Europe as well.

For example, the use of social media to spur debates and focusing more on the politics rather than the policies at times, do you think that would help make the debate in Europe more appealing to EU citizens?

Certainly the use of new technologies and social media for electoral purposes is more developed here [in the United States]. Also, the groundwork they operated in this election campaign, the number of volunteers they use, the identification and follow-up of potential voters: this grass-root level of political work is very impressive.

I have watched it during my visits to the campaign trail in different US states. Other aspects are more controversial, particularly the overall costs and the way financial contributions are channelled to the campaigns or the negative TV ads, for example.

Would you say the outcome of the election is good for Europe?

I think any outcome would have been good for Europe because I have no doubts that both candidates were very committed to the Atlantic ties and to the EU-US relationship.

If we had had a President Romney, the transition would have been longer, of course, before a new administration would be fully up and running. It would have taken him more time to get to know the files, to get to know the European leaders. 

Having "Obama II" means we have someone that already knows the files and is very knowledgeable about the European situation and also very close to its leaders. You will only get a few months of transition. From a European angle, it is easier to engage with someone whom you know already and with an administration that already has a lot of experience. It is an established relationship.

The Obama I government disappointed many Europeans, though, as they felt Europe fell off the map in the US president's priorities? Do you find this true?

I must say that I do not share the basic assumption of your question. I don't think that the US has that kind of attitude towards the EU, and I don't think that the EU should have that kind of reaction towards the United States. 

I don't feel that we are a neglected partner at all. I don't feel neglected myself as the EU representative here in DC, and I don't feel our leaders are neglected by this administration. If I look back at the recent years, this perception may be explained by the aborted Madrid summit in the spring of 2010, when people were expecting President Obama to come to the capital of the country holding the rotating presidency for the annual EU-US summit and, for different reasons, the summit did not materialise. 

When I came to the US and presented my credentials to President Obama in August 2010, my first priority was to reinstate regular EU-US summits. And we did so in Lisbon in November of that same year. And in 2011, we went even further with the first post-Lisbon White House summit with President Barroso, President Van Rompuy, and High Representative Catherine Ashton meeting President Obama, Hillary Clinton and Secretary [Timothy] Geithner. So in one year we fully reestablished the normal links at the top level. 

Today, we have very intense personal bonds between Obama, Barroso and Van Rompuy and an excellent relationship between the High Representative Catherine Ashton and the US Secretary of State. Our leaders meet at the annual bilateral summit, they meet at the G8, they meet in the G20 and at many other gatherings and they talk on the phone. 

It is well-known that Catherine Ashton and Hillary Clinton work very well together. Some observers here in town tell me that Hillary Clinton has no better relationship with any other foreign minister. I cannot judge that. What I can testify is that we have a very solid cooperation, a very good chemistry between the two of them, and the last illustration of this was their recent joint trip to the Balkans, which was a very successful one. 

If I judge from the quality of our daily contacts with our American counterparts here in Washington, if I judge from the continuous flow of colleagues coming from Brussels and many other capitals, talking and working with the Americans, I can only conclude that there is no deficit in the intensity of our relationship. 

So, I beg to disagree with those who think differently, although I must also recognise, and I am happy for it, that there has been a positive evolution in the last two years. This bodes well for Obama's second mandate.

You mentioned the good chemistry between Catherine Ashton and Hillary Clinton, but Hillary Clinton is leaving. How do you think Obama II will be different from Obama I on the EU-US partnership?

First, one of the persons stays, President Obama will stay, and that is of course a major element. 

Second, I believe that personal relationships also impact on the structures and if I look at the State Department today, the example coming from the top, from Secretary Clinton engaging intensively with Europe, this example has created a culture of engagement with Europe throughout the State Department.

My delegation hosts every week in our building several leading people from the State Department, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, coming over to discuss with the 27 EU embassies and ourselves.

We have this exchange on a permanent basis. It is not only between the two principals. It has trickled down the whole system and I am sure it will exactly be the same case when and if a new secretary of state comes in. 

Let me just add one additional point about another perception I think we have in Europe.

When Americans set their priorities, they first think of problems. Problem areas, hotspots, things they need to solve. Of course, except for the economic situation in Europe – they would like to see more growth coming out of Europe, they are following attentively the sovereign debt problems of some our eurozone countries – apart from that, Europe is not a problem for the United States. 

So we are not in the "problems list" and, from that point of view, are not a priority. However, that does not mean that we are not a partner, a privileged partner of the United States in finding solutions for the problems. We are.

The US has for decades supported European integration. Do you have the feeling that the euro crisis and the lack of closer defence cooperation on the security area is undermining this support?

It is obvious that you cannot isolate external relations and foreign policy from all other areas of work like the economy and defence. Everything is linked in the perception of partners. Everything is connected in the management of a relationship. They of course would like to see Europe grow faster, create more jobs and perform better, as much as we would like the United States to perform better. Striving economies on both sides of the Atlantic are part of the factors that will lead the world economy to move forward which in turn will benefit our companies and our citizens.

There is a wish on the American side that Europe moves forward, in solving the problems we have today. But I don't think this will have any impact on our credibility and on their willingness to cooperate with us. It can in fact even stimulate us to do better and faster. Likewise, when they say that Europe should assume more responsibility in the security front, I see that also as an opportunity for Europe to also move forward in that area.

In the last two years, if I think of what we did together in Libya and the way we are cooperating in dealing with the Arab awakening, when I see what we did together on Iran, where Catherine Ashton leads the negotiations also on behalf of the Americans and we have an aligned and unprecedented set of sanctions, I see a great degree of convergence on the things that we need to do.

Of course we do not always agree on everything, which is normal among friends and partners, but, building on what we have achieved recently, and respecting our differences, I am very positive and optimistic about the evolution of our relationship during the second mandate of President Obama.

The EU-US might launch negotiations to reach free-trade agreement. How confident are you that, if launched, the negotiations will deliver a genuine ‘comprehensive’ free-trade agreement?

This is one of the most promising files I am dealing with, but I think we have to go step-by-step.  What we have agreed, what our leaders have agreed, is that we produce a report by a high-level group on jobs and growth. Upon the final report from this group, expected before the end of 2012, the leaders will decide whether or not and when to launch negotiations. 

The next step now is for this high-level group, co-chaired by Karel De Gucht and the US trade representative, Ron Kirk, also with Deputy National Security Adviser Mike Froman on the American side, to conclude its work.

The timing on both sides is different. There are conditions that need to be met in terms of mandates and green lights from Congress and from the Council, but for the time being we need to look forward to the conclusion of the report.

Will leaders wait until the next EU-US relations summit before launching negotiations?

They could but they could also adapt its timing to the needs.

Is there already a date for the next summit?

No, not yet. President Obama has just been re-elected. He is now just returning phone calls of congratulations …

You asked me earlier if I was confident. I am confident that this process will move forward. 

I think we all realise the economic potential of this relationship. If we bring down barriers to trade, tariff barriers, non-tariff barriers, if we move forward on public procurement, on services, if we move forward on the regulatory convergence, I think we can do a lot to help our companies, create jobs and contribute to growth. 

And there is another dimension sometimes overlooked: in doing so we would also send a very strong message to the rest of the world, that we mean business, that we remain fully committed to creating conditions for the world economy to get back on the right track. 

Parliament waved the red flag on issues like agriculture and GMOs. Would you say the comprehensive agreement will be comprehensive enough to include these issues?

First of all, let me say that I very much welcome the support from the European Parliament to a future EU/US trade and economic cooperation agreement. It has been expressed by the president of the Parliament, Martin Schulz, and by the leaders of the main groups.

Some of them, like Joseph Daul, from the EPP, and Guy Verhofstadt, from the ALDE, have visited the United States in the recent past and I have discussed with them personally and know they fully support it.

The report coming out of the Trade Committee chaired by Professor Vital Moreira, following previous resolutions, is a major contribution to the debate and very supportive of a deal. These are extremely positive messages sent in favour of such an agreement. 

But of course we have issues and interests and concerns on both sides. You mentioned a few from the European side and I can list a few on the American side as well and that is what the negotiation is about: it is about trying to find the right balance at the end of the day knowing that if you are ambitious, you are likely to face difficult obstacles down the road.

That is why it is so important that the leaders have the vision and the right level of ambition so that the negotiators have a clear mandate of where to go. 

I believe the idea of a comprehensive agreement is already established in the statement from Los Cabos [Mexico] back in the early summer, the leaders have already agreed on that basis. If there is an agreement, it will be a comprehensive one, including agriculture, but I think you have to allow the negotiations to produce the results. 

Climate change is a horse battle for Europe. Obama in his first term did not seem to make it a priority. Would you say that will change in his second term?

I can only tell you what I see and hear travelling in the United States – and I have visited 27 states up until now. Everywhere I go, I try to get a sense of the extent to which climate change and environmental issues are important. In many states and in many cities I have visited, in the many debates I have attended, people are concerned about that. 

If I count the number of storms and natural events that I have witnessed in the US in the last two years, it has been quite eye-opening. More and more people link these natural events to climate change.  During Sandy there were a number of articles and debates about it. I agree with you, it was not an issue in the campaign, but there were a number of references by President Obama to climate change, including in his acceptance of victory speech in Chicago.

We are working with our colleagues in the US administration and I am hopeful that the second Obama term will bring us new possibilities to work with the US on climate change.

If you had to choose one word to describe EU-US relations’ prospects for the next four years, what would you choose?

One word is not enough, but if I could say it in a sentence, I would say something like: Four more years of enhanced cooperation with full respect for our differences, but also with full awareness of the potential of this unique relationship.

United in diversity?

United in diversity, yes, we could adopt the EU motto for the EU-US relationship.

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