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What will Barack Obama’s first Brussels visit deliver?

The United States president trip to Brussels is an ideal moment to underscore the critical link between concerted policies and mutual trust, and the centrality of US-EU cooperation to stability in very uncertain times – says Ian Lesser

On March 26, United States President Barack Obama will visit Brussels for the first time since taking office. For years, the transatlantic discourse has been shaped by debate over the so-called US pivot to Asia and exaggerated concerns over Washington’s more general disengagement from European affairs. The timing of the president’s visit could not be more significant with a mounting crisis in relations with Russia and much unfinished business on trade, energy, data privacy and other questions.

But above all, the US-European Union summit and discussions at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation offer a chance for Washington to reassure European policymakers and citizens about its priorities and intentions — and vice versa. America and Europe need agreement on strategy and policy although, above all, they need to restore a shared sense of confidence in transatlantic relations. To turn the famous Cold War arms control dictum on its head: verify but trust.

What will be on the policy agenda? The crisis in Ukraine will top the list. There is already a high degree of transatlantic consensus on options related to the immediate crisis over Crimea and the political fate of Ukraine. However, there are larger open questions about longer-term strategy toward a more assertive Russia. And NATO has already taken modest, symbolic steps to upgrade its force posture in Poland and the Baltic states.

The allies might also consider hedging against a more competitive relationship with Russia by strengthening the Allied naval and air presence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. After all, Crimean bases are valuable to Moscow precisely because of their utility for power projection in these areas.

The summit will also be an ideal moment to launch new initiatives aimed at reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports. The Obama administration can make clear its commitment to the rapid expansion of US liquid natural gas exports to transatlantic partners. America and Europe can also give priority to the development of new gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean including more active diplomacy on the Cyprus dispute and Israeli-Turkish frictions that constrain energy cooperation in the region.

Neither of these opportunities will yield immediate results but they can help accelerate the progressive diversification of energy supplies and reduce Europe’s exposure to crisis-driven interruptions and Russian leverage, whether real or perceived. The next steps on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will surely be on the agenda against a backdrop of continued uncertainty about economic recovery and growth on both sides of the Atlantic. There is mounting concern among the initiative’s many supporters that the political impetus for negotiations is waning. The Brussels summit offers an ideal opportunity to underscore the strategic importance of TTIP in geopolitical as well as commercial terms.

And finally there is the trust agenda. This is not simply about headline questions of surveillance and data privacy. As a recent online poll reveals, public preferences on that front are not very different on either side of the Atlantic. Far more important will be the revitalisation of strategic trust — renewed confidence in the viability of transatlantic partnership on big picture questions of security and prosperity.

Seen in this way, TTIP and energy security are key elements on the trust agenda in their own right. So too are the steps NATO, the US and the EU can take together to provide strategic reassurance in the continent’s east and south. Washington seeks confidence in Europe’s commitment and capacity to play a more active role in international security. Europe wants to be able to trust in America’s commitment to European security and transatlantic relations, even in the face of challenges in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. Obama’s Brussels visit is an ideal moment to underscore the critical link between concerted policies and mutual trust, and the centrality of US-EU cooperation to stability in very uncertain times.

Ian Lesser is senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: Obama’s Brussels agenda: verify but trust

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