Friends again? Europe looks to Biden to repair transatlantic ties

All together now: in a fairly rare show of unity, European Union leaders gave a simultaneous welcome to US President-elect Joe Biden, perhaps belying an eagerness to turn the page on the Donald Trump era.

“An irreplaceable transatlantic friendship”

The outgoing US president made few friends across the pond as he labelled the European Union a “foe,” cheered for Brexit and said he had a “big problem with Germany,” the continent’s largest economy.

On Saturday, EU Council President Charles Michel got in touch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders “to communicate simultaneously” on Biden‘s victory, and agreed to react at “7 pm,” a European Union official said.

In her message, Merkel said the “transatlantic friendship is irreplaceable if we are to meet the great challenges of this time,” while Macron said Europe and the US “have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges. Let’s work together!”

Michel listed “Covid-19, multilateralism, climate change and international trade” as areas of future cooperation, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, spoke of a “great day for US and Europe,” and of the need to “rebuild our partnership.”

The wide consensus is that things can only get better.

“The picture [of the current transatlantic relationship] is really disastrous, I don’t know what else to call it,” Nathalie Tocci, director of the IAI think tank in Rome and a special advisor to Borrell, told dpa.

Trump ripped up EU-backed international agreements like the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, pulled out of the Geneva-based World Health Organization in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and called the NATO alliance into question.

The outgoing US president also wrong-footed Europe by leaving arms control treaties with Russia and with unilateral steps in the Middle East, such as the pullout of US troops from Syria and the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Biden – a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and two-term vice-president under the Obama administration, with decades of foreign policy experience – is expected to be far more attuned to European sensitivities.

“The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats,” the Democratic president-elect wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

In moves all likely to be welcome in Europe, he has promised a renewed US commitment to NATO, a return to multilateralism, a willingness to re-open negotiations with Iran, re-engagement with the Palestinians, and re-entry into the Paris climate accord.


US presidential election results

America is changing and Europe will need to rely on itself

But European analysts do not expect everything to turn rosy.

Even if one of Trump’s advisors, Tony Blinken, talked last month about ending the “artificial trade war” with the EU, Tocci said she anticipated that trade would remain one of the bones of contention with Washington.

Under Biden, “I think that a bit of a protectionist agenda will remain,” given US internal politics. “Election results show that Trumpism is alive and kicking and it is something that he cannot ignore,” she noted.

A tough approach on China will be another sign of continuity from the outgoing US administration that Europe will have contend with, Tocci predicted: “If anything, I expect the Biden presidency to be even more hawkish.”

More broadly, Biden is expected to continue the US retreat from its global policeman role: he has pledged to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” and – just like his predecessors – is likely to expect Europe to rely less on the US.

“America is changing, what happened [under Trump] is not an accident,” David O’Sullivan, a former EU ambassador to Washington and chairman of the governing board of the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank, said at an EPC event on Friday.

“The American body politic is fatigued with the endless wars, with Iraq, with Afghanistan. With a sense of the burden of kind of making the world work. It’s gonna be more inward-looking,” he said. “This is the new America that we have to deal with.”

The upshot is that Europe will have to learn to shoulder more responsibility for its own defence and security, and count less on American superpower. O’Sullivan said there could be no “complacency” about this.

“We would be completely wrong to think that somehow, now everything is gonna go back to the way it was,” he said. “Where do we find this golden era? I think we really have to go back to the last century … So we’re not gonna back there.”

Merkel made a similar point when she told the Financial Times in January: “Europe needs to carve out its own geopolitical role and the United States’ focus on Europe is declining. That will be the case with any president.”