Bulgarian European Community Studies Association
Approaches and top priorities for a re-vitalization of the transatlantic and EU-US relations seem to differ depending on whose perspective we will consider. In the US perspective, Europe is needed as a supporter for recovering global US leadership based on the power of example and inspiration for all people in the world.
It will be up to Europe’s maturity to acknowledge either a position of a junior partner of the US in a global alliance for global good, or try to survive on its own quite insecure domestic and international agenda, while at the same time being squeezed by an emancipated Russia and a frustrated Turkey.
It has to be crystal clear, that any debate about the redefinition of transatlantic relations cannot evade the uneasy questions related to Russia and Turkey. If the US and the EU continue to approach Russia separately, and if within the EU some member states still prefer dealing with Russia on a bilateral basis, then it will be irrelevant to speak about anything transatlantic. If Turkey continues to hang in the abyss with no clear geopolitical future, if the EU stays inhibited with its relatively small problems, then no future for a transatlantic unity could ever be foreseen.
The first and most needed thing to do is intensifying political contacts between the US and the EU in search of framing common discourses. The US and the EU have quite different starting points and frames of reference, but they both have a common challenge – Russia. Whether each will sneak and deal with Russia at sole discretion without compromising with the other will be the key to the ‘transatlantic standing together’ or ‘self-help’ approach.
“Transatlanticism” has been bitterly challenged over the last eight years of the outgoing Bush administration. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have to live through hard times to restore Europe’s transatlantic enthusiasm, which has considerably degraded not only because of US policies, but also because of the increasing reluctance of some European countries to follow the American lead. So, one of the first cornerstones of a re-animated transatlantic link would be compromising on the issue of leadership – leadership-in-what, leadership-when, leadership-how, leadership-with-whom. On issues related to security and geopolitics, the EU does not have much choice or room for manoeuvre but to accept the US leadership. On other issues related to global governance, policies towards less-developed counties, meeting global challenges, a dual or joint leadership between the EU and the US, is much more feasible.
Certainly, the most difficult focal points for finding compromises between the US and the EU will be Russia, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey.
On the whole, Central European countries are concerned that with the new American President, they might lose the privileged relations they maintained with the Bush administration. The prevailing opinion in Central European countries is that President Obama will concentrate on restoring relations with Western Europe that critically suffered under the neoconservative American establishment. Although some Central European countries were reliable allies to the Bush administration, they might be pushed aside now. The fact that the pro-American Czech Republic took the rotating presidency of the EU at the time of Obama’s inauguration is unlikely to make any change. It is expected that the EU-US agenda will be dominated entirely by the global financial crisis and economic reform efforts. Thus, big West European economies like Great Britain, Germany and France, will be prioritized as partners at the expense of Central European EU members.
The Czech Presidency seems committed to bringing new impetus into the transatlantic agenda since the first EU-US summit with the new US President will be held during its term. It remains to be seen whether Czech enthusiasm will materialize in more concrete results.
As far as Russia is concerned, the new US administration will probably follow President Nicolas Sarkosy’s milder tone instead of the more hard-line position of Poland and the Czech Republic. Here again, the highlight is on the disunity in the EU itself with regard to Russia, even beyond the transatlantic discourse. And when the transatlantic discourse is at stake, we witness at least three visions towards Russia – the American, the West European and the Central European (‘new’ Europe, most eloquently represented by Poland and the Czech Republic). Whether there will ever be a crossing point or merger of these visions, is a matter of strategic importance for the future of the transatlantic community.
The other critical point of divergence – Turkey – will be the next test-case for the transatlantic future. Unlike Central Europe, anti-Americanism in Turkey grew stronger, just as Euro-scepticism. Both the US and the EU damaged, or at least aggravated, their relations with Turkey. How they will get out of this situation is also a matter of priority for transatlantic partners.
Perspectives from Bulgaria
The Bulgarian public is fully aware that the country has no ‘special place’ on the US strategic agenda. Where the country could possibly fit in, besides NATO, is within a general revitalization of the EU-US transatlantic relationship, which gives Bulgaria the only opportunity for direct access to discussing or expressing positions on such strategic issues as the future of international presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, negotiations with Iran or energy security.
Bulgaria is especially interested in how the process of integration of the Western Balkans will continue and what type of engagement the transatlantic partners (US and EU) will maintain in the Black Sea region.
On bilateral level, the recent US-Bulgarian agenda is framed by the outstanding issue of whether and when Bulgaria will enter the US visa-free travel programme, and other more technical issues such as the entry into force of the bilateral agreement for avoiding double taxation. On more critical issues, Bulgaria is likely to continue keeping a low profile in transatlantic relations. Unlike the political establishments in Poland and the Czech Republic, governments in Bulgaria in recent years tried to avoid and attempted to stay away from any bilateral approach to the US that might inflict an increase in the regular rate of disapproval the EU maintains towards Bulgaria. Even the signing of the agreement for joint military facilities between Bulgaria and the US is rather an exception to confirm that rule.
Another reason for the governing circles in Bulgaria to refrain from a direct and straightforward engagement with the US is the ‘conventional wisdom’ or instrumental common sense deriving from a psychological complex from the past that ‘there is nothing good in annoying Russia’. Unfortunately, this type of servitude mentality and also alleged business links with Russia grounded the argument that Bulgaria may turn into Russia’s “Trojan horse” in the EU.
Political circles in Bulgaria seem quite unlikely to go for any direct transatlantic engagement. What is most likely, is that Bulgaria will leave West European EU member states and the US to bridge the transatlantic gap on their own. Bulgaria will surely not be an ardent advocate of transatlantic relations.
If we compare the trends of approval for US leadership in global affairs, the Bulgarian public opinion stands somewhere in the middle, compared to some other EU countries. This maintains a certain level of transatlantic vigour in the country, but this enthusiasm is not impressive at all. It exists only within small expert communities, rather than among the general public. The transatlantic inertia and the pro-American sentiment in Bulgarian society from the 1990s are on the downside. Opinion surveys in 2007 in Bulgaria showed a somewhat declining trend of approval of US leadership.