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Atlantic Ocean

Transatlantic relations refers to the historic, cultural, political, economic and social relations between countries on both side of the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes specifically those between the United States, Canada and the countries in Europe, although other meanings are possible.

There are a number of issues over which the United States and Europe generally disagree. Some of these are cultural, such as the U.S. use of the death penalty, some are international issues such as the Middle East peace process, and many others are trade related. The current U.S. policies are often described as being unilateral in nature, whereas the European Union and Canada are often said to take a more multilateral approach, relying more on the United Nations and other international institutions to help solve issues. Of course, there are many other issues upon which they do agree.



One potential definition of transatlantic relations. The United States (in red), Canada (in green), the European Union (in blue). Excluded from this definition are non-EU states in Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Transatlantic relations can refer to relations between individual states or to relations between groups of states or international organizations with other groups or with states, or within one group. For example:
Within a group:

  • Intra-NATO relations

Between groups:

Between a group and a state:

Between states:

By language and culture

The boundaries of which states are part of Transatlantic relations depends on the context. The term may be used as a euphemism to a specific bilateral relationship, for example, Anglo-American relations. The boundary could be drawn so as only to refer member states of the EU plus the US, when discussing Euro-American relations. In other circumstances it may include Canada, or non-EU countries in Europe. The term may also be used in the context of the wider Atlantic world including Africa and Latin America.


The early relationship between Europe and America was based on colonialism and merchantilism. All modern states in the Americas can be traced back to colonial states that were founded by European nations, states that were very different from the pre-Columbian civilizations and cultures that had existed before.

Even after the United States (and later Canada) became independent, the main relationship between the two continents was one-way migration.

Politically the United States tried to keep a distance from European affairs, and Canada was subordinate to British foreign policy.

During the First World War however both North American states found themselves fighting in Europe and engrossed in European politics. President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points helped to redraw the map of Europe.

Although the Roosevelt administration wanted to enter the war against Germany, the vast majority of Americans were too isolationist and disillusioned at their experience in World War One to seek involvement in the World War Two, at least until the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941. Once involved, the US became pivotal to the war effort and therefore European politics.

After the second war the United States and Canada both desired a permanent role in the defence of Europe, and European states wanted protection from the Soviet Union. The result was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which became the lynchpin of Transatlantic relations during the Cold War.

Recent issues of contention

A poster promoting the Marshall Plan. Several European countries received significant aid from the US after the second world war. The Cold War greatly affected the transatlantic relations of the time.

Recent transatlantic relations have been described as strained, especially due to divergent positions on the Iraq war which prominent European nations, including France and Germany (dubbed Old Europe by Donald Rumsfeld) opposed. Another major issue is reducing pollution with the Kyoto protocol, which the whole European Union and Canada support and the United States opposes. Nevertheless, there are many cultural, economic, political and military ties between the two areas.


Arms embargo on the People's Republic of China

Both the United States and the European Union as of 2005 have an arms embargo against China (PRC), put in place in 1989 after the events of Tiananmen Square. The U.S. and some EU members continue to support the ban but others, spearheaded by France, have been attempting to persuade the EU to lift the ban, arguing that more effective measures can be imposed, but also to improve trade relations between China and certain EU states. The U.S. strongly opposes this, and after the PRC passed an anti-secession law against Taiwan the likelihood of the ban being lifted diminished somewhat.

Secret CIA prisons

The Washington Post claimed on November 2, 2005 that the USA has several secret jails in Eastern Europe (also called black sites). Poland and Romania however have denied these allegations. Also, Central Intelligence Agency planes carrying terror suspects would have made secret stopovers in several West European countries since 2001. Belgium, Iceland, Spain, and Sweden have launched investigations. The Guardian calculated on November 30 that CIA planes landed about 300 times on European air ports. Most planes would have landed in Germany and the United Kingdom as a transit point to East Europe, North Africa (possibly Morocco and Egypt), or the Middle East (possibly Syria and Jordan). In the meanwhile, the European Commission, on behalf of the European Union, asked the US for a clarification. The EU has refused to confirm or deny the reports.[3][4][5][6][7]

Boeing and Airbus subsidies

The two companies are the major competing aircraft manufacturers, and both Boeing and Airbus are accused of receiving forms of subsidy from the United States[8] and from some of the European Union member states respectively, which both sides have criticised each other for doing. The pressure for this issue to be resolved has increased as Airbus and Boeing are now nearly equal in commercial aircraft market share.

Death penalty

In the United States, capital punishment is a legal form of punishment, whereas all European Union member states have abolished the death penalty fully (excluding Latvia which has retained it for exceptional circumstances such as wartime only). Indeed, nearly all European states no longer use the death penalty. This causes problems with transatlantic relations because it may be illegal for an EU member to allow the extradition of a citizen to the U.S. if the death penalty is an option.

International Criminal Court

The U.S. is strongly opposed to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and has not signed up to it, though most states in Europe have. The U.S. fears that its soldiers may be subject to politically motivated prosecutions, so much so that it has signed many bilateral agreements with other countries in an attempt to avoid this.

Arab-Israeli conflict

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, both sides of the Atlantic usually act more or less in tandem, in regard to the approach to the Palestinian territories as well as other issues (such as the recent conflict in Lebanon). However, in general, the European Union is often more critical of Israel, particularly in issues of policy (such as the West Bank barrier). The U.S. has historically been a much more supportive ally, going so far as to even use its veto at the United Nations Security Council in Israel's support.

Iran and weapons of mass destruction

The United States has not ruled out the use of force against Iran regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have taken the lead to solve the issue diplomatically, while representing the interests of the United States in negotiations with Iran since the United States has had no official diplomatic relations with the country since 1979. Former UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, described military action against Iran as "inconceivable".[9]

Iraq War

The Iraq War not only divided opinions within European nations and within the U.S., but between European nations themselves, with some states supporting of military action, and some against. This caused a major transatlantic rift, especially between France and Germany on the one hand, who were against military action, and the United States, United Kingdom, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, and Spain on the other hand, in favor (though Spain, after elections in 2004, reversed course).[10] The repercussions of this major dividing issue have still not healed fully.

Kyoto protocol

The European Union is one of the main backers of the Kyoto protocol, which aims to combat global warming. The United States which initially signed the protocol at its creation during the Clinton Administration, never had the measure ratified by the United States Senate, an essential requirement to give the protocol the force of law in the United States. Later, in March 2001, under President George W. Bush, the United States removed its signature from the protocol, leading to much acrimony between the United States and European nations. Recently, President Barack Obama, however, said that he planned on re-signing the protocol at a conference to be held in Copenhagen in December 2009, where the protocol will be renewed and its measures extended.[11]

Visa waiver reciprocity

The EU is requesting from the US reciprocity regarding the visa waiver program for all its members. The European Union has threatened with the possibility of imposing visas for American citizens that would extend to the entire EU.

Resolved issues

U.S. steel tariffs

In 2002, the U.S. imposed steel tariffs to protect its steel industry. The European Union and other countries took up the issue with the World Trade Organization, which ruled that such tariffs breach its regulations. Subsequently, by December 2003, the tariffs had been lifted by the U.S. administration.

See also



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