So much unites Europeans and Americans – in values, history, defense, and the flow of people – that it is not surprising they want more of it. On Monday, the United States and European Union opened talks to further conjoin the world’s two largest economies by ending the remaining – and most stubborn – of their barriers to trade.
In effect, the two sides are asking, How can we be more alike? Such affirmative questions are important. Trade touches on many salient forms of collective identity, such as concerns about safety, privacy, or cultural expression. The talks should be about more than compromise for a deal that enhances exports (which is reason enough for them to succeed). They are also a search for common humanity.
The two sides must agree on norms for business behavior and consumer benefits, such as how to clean chickens or new rules for banks. They must strike a balance between liberty to do business and responsibility toward an expanding community. Both sides know the difficulty of forging a wider consensus – the US in binding 50 states together, the EU in reconciling the economies of 28 nations. That may make it easier to broaden the sense of community across the pond.
If the talks succeed by the 2015 target date, they will break down differences, not highlight them. That is quite rare in a world in which globalization and the Internet often highlight divisions by class, religion, race, gender, or civilization.
The talks almost did not start. France insisted on safeguards for its film and TV industries. And Europe felt violated by revelations of snooping by the US National Security Agency, reflecting the value it places on privacy and honesty between allies. Such concerns must be expertly negotiated so that no one of them causes the talks to fail.
With the European economy in the doldrums, the EU needs this pact, which is dubbed the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Under it, trade could expand 50 percent, creating jobs for millions of disenchanted unemployed youth in Europe. That alone is worth the effort to find ways to overcome differences.
An agreement would create the largest free-trade zone ever – one that would dwarf NAFTA by encompassing 820 million people. The world needs such an economic jolt. Last year, trade expanded at a slower rate than the growth in domestic economies, reversing a trend that had helped create rising prosperity after World War II.
The days when trade talks could spark mass protests – such as those in Seattle in 1999 – are probably over. Trade itself has slowly knitted bonds and common interests across borders and redefined the identities of many people. The world now Googles together, eats sushi, or watches “Downton Abbey.”
Not every country will get what it wants or avoid what it fears. Trade involves trade-offs. But more than that, it also leads to an enlarged sense of community. Trade deals are not only mutual back-scratching. They might also lead to an embrace of the other as one’s own.