“Globalization seems to have made the Atlantic wider, when it needs to become smaller,” David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary states and accurately sums up the current status of transatlantic relations. Since the Cold War, no common enemy or common goal has fostered a return to the post-WWII heights of transatlantic engagements. Ironically, the biggest commonality both sides of the Atlantic currently share is a political fear that led to a grand aversion to transnational and transatlantic relations. Brexit, growing populist and anti-European Union sentiments, open revolts against TTIP, and the election of a populist and self-proclaimed autarchic POTUS, all speak for the transatlantic citizens’ dissatisfaction with the current status-quo. “Populists differ,” the Economist rightfully states, “but the bedrock for them all is economic and cultural insecurity.” By implication then, economic and cultural stability and security should foster a willingness to embrace and increase transatlantic relations.
Georgetown University Professor of Government and Foreign Service Kathleen R. McNamara has established the fundamentality of creating a joint cultural climate as the foundation for political and economic authority in her groundbreaking work The Politics of Everyday Europe. While researching how the EU has managed to build support for itself and its rule among its citizens, she found that “a slow transformation in the symbols and practices of everyday life in the EU have built a cultural infrastructure for governance that has made the EU a ‘taken for granted’ political authority.” Culture in this framework needs to be understood in a constructivist approach as a concept that is neither stable nor given, but that is imagined and constantly re-affirmed through our everyday actions. Every culture differs, and every human being lives in various different cultural spheres, but the EU is such an observable experience because the change in its cultural climate was visible to me and my generation: I remember my Deutsche Mark, I remember having to wait in the car while crossing the border into France, I remember having no special EU-queue in airports, and I remember the time when I did not feel like a European, but a simple German girl. Now I am both.
“Dense social interactions”, McNamara continues, “help to drive our interpretation of the realities around us, shape how we see, what we value, and thus our very identity. […] If we think of culture not as something we are, but as something we do, we can start to understand how such a cultural infrastructure and the identities it engenders, matters for governance.” In changing our transatlantic cultural climate, we allow for a modern and more transparent way to legitimize transatlantic political, social and economic relations. Yet, if a common European cultural infrastructure furthers integration and legitimization of rule, how come the United Kingdom left the EU? Well, Britain never joined the cultural climate in the first place. Instead, it chose to opt-out of four key legislations and agreements – Schengen Agreement, Economic and Monetary Union, Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, Area of Freedom, Security and Justice – and hence never allowed for an on-set European identity to manifest.
Although the EU is by no means an uncontested institution, it continues to bring forth legislations that bind its citizens closer together and I strongly believe that this culture-based approach has clear merits for modernizing transatlantic relations and fostering a more political transatlantic civil society. However, these relations do not need to be created from the ground up, but instead need to be modernized, rethought and reworked in order to persist and flourish in the future. Or stated differently: Transatlantic relations need to be reduced, reused, and recycled.
REDUCE: We need to halt the implementation of new transatlantic economic agreements. Albeit sounding counter-intuitive, it is necessary insofar as the majority of the people do not want closer transatlantic economic and political ties at the moment, as evident in their rejection of TTIP. The people’s political fears and cultural insecurities need to be respected and understood in order to further transatlantic integration and put a halt to populist sentiments that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Once a cultural infrastructure is in place, new transatlantic legislations might even be embraced by the majority of citizens, instead of openly revolted.
REUSE: Politicians in the US and the EU should re-sign their already established agreements, such as NATO or the Transatlantic Economic Council, to focus on communalities of the past. Bringing those ‘old’ agreements to the public’s attention makes possible an understanding of the long history of transatlantic relations as well as their positive repercussions. Moreover, European institutions and symbols that helped implement a common cultural climate in the EU can be transferred to include the United States as well: The Erasmus exchange program could be turned into a transatlantic exchange program or a ‘Transatlantic Visa’ could allow easier border-crossing and longer stays on both sides of the Atlantic.
RECYCLE: When researching ‘European and American culture’ on the internet, one finds various results dealing with ‘the cultural gap’ or ‘cultural differences,’ yet there are few reports that focus on the inherent similarities of our cultures: freedom, equality (of genders, sexes and races), democracy, capitalism, security and safety, pride in our national identity, and a common and long-lasting history. If we were to sum up the core normative and institutional commonalities of today, we can create a modern “Transatlantic Declaration” that serves as the foundation of our joint cultural climate.
At this point in time, I see two ways our future transatlantic relationships can proceed: We can either continue forcing transnational agreements, such as TTIP, onto the people, disregarding their obvious aversion to them and possibly evoking more drastic populist tensions. Or, we can seminally reduce, reuse, and recycle our current transatlantic agenda in order to foster a joint cultural climate that will dissipate political fears and help legitimize transatlantic legislations and agreement in the future.