Barack Obama’s trip to Europe last week made it clear that the U.S. president has a lot invested in what happens next in Europe. These are the five things Obama hopes to see before he leaves office in January.
1. No Brexit
Obama travelled to London to deliver a clear message ahead of Britain’s June 23 referendum on E.U. membership: the U.K. is a much more valuable U.S. ally inside the European Union than out. The position itself is not surprising, but the willingness to say so in London and warn that British vote to leave the E.U. would put the U.K. at the “back of the queue” in trade talks with the U.S., is the strongest direct intervention Obama has made in the domestic politics of an ally during his presidency. A British exit would cost the E.U. 15 percent of its overall GDP; the OECD estimates that British GDP would be 5 percent lower by 2030 than if it votes to remain.
But the U.S. is not purely a bystander here. G20 finance ministers have made clear that Brexit would be “a shock” to the entire global economy. That’s the last thing Obama and Europe need. A YouGov poll released this week placed “leave” ahead 42-41.
Obama knows that the transatlantic relationship, the foundation of the post-WWII international order, is at its weakest point in decades, and Britain is by far Washington’s most capable and like-minded ally within the E.U.
2. Turkey-E.U. Refugee Deal
While Brexit may be the most immediate threat to the E.U.’s political stability, the migrant crisis is the most significant. That’s why Washington, like Europe, needs the deal struck with Turkey to continue housing Syrian refugees on its side of the Aegean to pan out. More than a million refugees and illegal migrants made their way into Europe last year, four times the amount that entered in 2014. According to the UN, another million people will try to enter Europe via the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans this year. 2.7 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Turkey alone. The refugee surge has slowed sharply in recent months, thanks to new obstacles along the Balkan route and the E.U.-Turkey deal, but if the latter sours, Europe could face another human tidal wave.
The refugee crisis has given rise to a host of far-right and nationalist parties across the continent who have found political success railing against the influx of Muslim foreigners. German Chancellor Angela Merkel went out on a political limb in support of refugees, and she has paid a political price for it. Her party’s approval rating is currently at 33 percent, its lowest level since November 2010. So it’s no surprise that Obama went to bat for Merkel repeatedly during his recent trip. Of all of Europe’s leaders, it is Merkel with whom Obama shares the most similar worldview. He wants her to succeed, and for that to happen, this deal with Turkey has to as well. There will also be new pressures on the governments of Greece and Italy as refugees increasingly turn to more dangerous sea routes to enter Europe.
Ideally, Obama would also be making progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, America’s trade deal with Europe. The immediate economic benefits of TTIP are sizable, if not overwhelming; an additional $134 billion for the E.U. and $107 billion for the U.S. estimated per year. But more importantly, trade deals like these—this one would cover 45 percent of global GDP—provide governments with common interests.
But as populist politicians score points on both sides of the Atlantic, the benefits of free trade have been angrily called into question. Popular support for TTIP in the U.S. has fallen to 18 percent from 53 percent in 2014. In Germany, support for TTIP has dropped to 17 percent, down from 55 percent a couple years ago. With numbers like those, there’s little chance TTIP will gain much traction before Obama leaves office in January, but he can help establish some momentum for the next president to build on.
4. Shoring Up Alliances
Obama also wants to see NATO allies take on a larger share of common defense costs. Of NATO’s 28 members, just five meet NATO’s stated goal of spending 2 percent or more of their respective GDPs on defense: the U.S. (3.6 percent), Greece (2.4 percent), Poland (2.2 percent), the U.K. (2.1 percent) and Estonia (2 percent). That’s not sustainable, and Donald Trump has scored political points this spring by pointing that out. Obama also wants his European counterparts to hold the line on sanctions against Russia, which have been in place since the beginning of Moscow’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine. Countries like Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Hungary have voiced skepticism about continuing the sanctions. Cracks in NATO solidarity will further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin.
5. Climate Change
Finally, Obama knows that efforts to counter climate change demand effective transatlantic cooperation. 2011 figures show that the U.S. accounts for 16 percent of global CO2 emissions, and the EU-28 contributes another 10 percent. While China is responsible for 28 percent of global CO2 emissions—by far the world’s largest share—it has balked at significant measures to limit its carbon output. Beijing justifies this position by arguing that the U.S. and Europe were responsible for 27 and 25 percent, respectively, of all CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2011. China, which began to industrialize much later, clocks in at just 11 percent. Why should China, its leaders ask, pay the economic price for the West’s industrial development?
True enough, counter Western leaders, but there is no credible climate change solution for the future that doesn’t involve significant support from China. That’s a point made more effectively when U.S. and European leaders speak together.