With Joe Biden becoming the 46th President of the United States (US), a window of opportunity has been offered to the EU. Given the difference with his predecessor Donald Trump, this change will have – at least at first glance – ample impact on the relationship with Europe. Unlike the intentions of the unilateralist President Trump, the new president-elect stated in his ‘Biden Plan’ that he will “restore respected leadership on the world stage taking immediate steps to renew our alliances”. Yet, the European hope for a clear path forward in the transatlantic relationship needs to be tempered, as these relations are not likely to bounce back. It has been a long time that US-Europe relations have switched from a strong and powerful partnership to a kind of, as the French say, ‘je t’aime, moi non plus’-stand.
- A different discourse, but similar goals
To begin with, we should never forget that the US have never been strong supporters of too much European integration. This did not start with Donald Trump, but has instead been the permanent policy of all US presidents, including Clinton and Obama. In fact, the two last democratic presidents of the US have often stated that the future of the world, and therefore also of America, will be strongly influenced by the East, and more specifically Asia. In that perspective, the violent anti-China rhetoric of Trump may be seen as much more pro-European than assumed by many. Disregarding China as a partner may thus have been an opportunity for Europe. Unfortunately, the Europeans, who were too busy handling their own difficulties (Brexit, the migration crisis…) and their own divisions, did not seize that opportunity. Instead of trying to understand the unpredictable Trump, they considered it wise to look with loving eyes to China.
Hence, the difference between Trump and Biden with regard to US-EU relations is likely to be seen in the tone of the discourse rather than in the outcomes in reality. Unlike Biden, who said politely that he views Europe as a key partner to the US, Trump rudely presented the EU as a foe and an economic competitor set up to take advantage of the US. After having treated Europe as an afterthought and having encouraged cracks in the EU’s cohesion, there seems little left to the relationship between the two blocs. Yet, if President Trump would have prevailed during the presidential elections by a wide margin, Europe would maybe at least have had clarity on its options.
- Trump’s actions put into context: not so bad after all
Even though many of the US President’s actions have been ill-conceived, his individual foreign policies need to be placed in context. Namely, against the background of Europe’s withdrawal from global geopolitics for the first time in five centuries and since the beginning of the age of European colonialism, President Trump only endeavours to deal with a deteriorating world order that he inherited. Instead of persuading Europe to renew its centuries-old leadership role in global affairs, however, he rather assaults them.
Yet, perhaps partly because of his derogatory but realistic comments, such as calling NATO “obsolete”, Europe responded by bringing about changes that had a positive impact on its development. Since Trump took office, its defence expenditures have for example only become more pronounced. And in the meantime, large US military spending increases could be found, tied to specific initiatives to improve alliance capabilities in Eastern Europe.
Furthermore, Trump’s Presidency could in a way even be called a pacifist one, as he withdrew troops from several battle places and did not start any new war. No one can however say with certainty that this policy will be continued, keeping in mind that it were the Democrats that started the Vietnam War 65 years ago.
- A trap for Europe
As Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, rightly states: “Trump has been a kind of awakening for Europe”. Although EU officials like to criticise the current US president’s foreign policies, the Union’s absence in many important international events only points to the fact that it has not been able to put forward any strategic policies. Trump’s policies have clearly showed us that the EU has until now not come up with options to counter the claims that we basically are ‘free riders’. While the EU looks increasingly inward, member states seem unwilling to understand how Trump is in fact a symptom of the end of the post-1945 era. Yet, thanks to this ‘wake-up’ shake from the American administration, Europe is finally on its way to become a more sovereign and strategically autonomous Europe – something that without Trump would have never happened.
In fact, during the past four years, the EU took significant steps to strengthen its member states’ cooperation in the field of defence and security. In a few years it even achieved more than it did since its creation with the adoption of the EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy in 2016, the European Defence Fund in 2017, the launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation, etc. Being more Atlanticist may thus not be good news for Europe, as a Biden administration will likely follow the Trump administration’s critical tone towards EU defence cooperation initiatives like these, due to US defence industrial interests. Instead, Biden said that he as a president will “salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilise our century and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges” when it comes to NATO. Following this rationale, he would rather be tempted to obstruct PESCO more, than push European allies to do more for their own security.
With Joe Biden becoming the next American president, the risk namely exists that many European governments will rush back into the American camp and fall back into a lazy and ultimately self-defeating pattern of dependence on the US military shield. Although “Trump has been a kind of awakening”, it is thus important to stay awake and not just cancel the plans for a ‘sovereign Europe’. While Biden will probably play the role of one of the most pro-European American presidents in decades, the US will remain cautious about military commitments within NATO and divergences between the EU’s and the US’ trade and economic interests won’t suddenly disappear but may in contrary even increase.
Thereby, US foreign policy will likely continue to be focused on the Indo-Pacific region, and not on European concerns. To resuscitate NATO, a Biden administration will nevertheless in all probability reach out to Turkish president Erdogan, after the nature of Turkish-US ties have been largely reduced to a peculiar relationship under President Trump. Opponents of a conciliation approach within Biden’s foreign policy team therefore suggest to struck a deal with Turkey, as it is an important ally and a key country on NATO’s southern flank. This policy seems to have the upper hand, as the US cannot afford to lose or allow to drift away from the Western defence block towards Russia. Linked to this, co-opting and conciliation will not always be in favour of Europe. Although Europeans may rightly regret Trump’s anti-China obsession, a stronger US-China partnership under Biden would not bring any good for Europe, both from a political and an economic perspective.
- Conclusion: to build a more independent Europe
As we cannot predict today what the US-EU relationship will look like in four years, the EU should focus on creating a new vision for the future where Washington may not always take the lead and Europe is capable of taking on more responsibility. In the end, a more confident Europe that is more able to lead on its own is also a more valuable partner to the US and to the rest of the world. In addition to that, it would be naïve to think that with Biden becoming the next American president, the discomfort of globalisation, the fear of China and the concern about multilateralism will suddenly disappear. Trump’s heritage will for example for sure leave a large number of Americans convinced that free trade is damaging the US’ economy, which is partly true. And in addition to that, the Senate could remain in the hands of the Republicans, which is problematic as its green light is a necessity for any trade deal.
While there will be in all probability many continuities between Trump and Biden, this should not stop European leaders from developing new lines of cooperation with the Biden administration. Given that the latter is more positive about Europe and strengthening ties, it will be much easier and also smart to find a partner in the US to work together on green tech and renewable energy, the global response to the Corona crisis and reform of the WHO, human rights and democracy, and technology issues like digital taxation and data privacy. Yet, the EU cannot fall into the trap of a renewal of the old proposal for a TTIP or the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership on which the Trump administration put a brake. Despite the optimism about renewed cooperation, we cannot go back to the exact same agenda Europe had five years ago. What it needs instead is a fresh approach, as the world has changed since then and so have the US and Europe itself.
Besides increased cooperation in certain areas, it is however also necessary to create a sustainable strategy of economic and political sovereignty, where the relationship with the US will continue to be a cornerstone but not the only one. 75 years after the Second World War, times have come now to look forward to a new era of international relations. Facing the two superpowers of our century, China and the US, confronted with unpredictable neighbour Russia and the growing threat from Turkey and the Islamic world, there is no other way than to be a self-sufficient Europe fighting for its own interests. Although Europe already proves global leadership with its Green Deal and by promoting its democratic values everywhere in the world, it may be not enough for the dangerous world we live in today. Yet, as the Dalai Lama correctly states: “our strength is not in our weapons, but in our hearts and souls”.
NOTE | This commentary was written in cooperation with Flo Van den Broeck
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