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  • Teresa Turkheimer

What will a Biden administration mean for US-EU relations?


Who could ever forget that iconic photograph taken at the G7 summit in 2018 – reminiscent of a renaissance painting – of Angela Merkel, Macron and other world leaders towering over Donald Trump, who is instead seated, smirking, and with his arms crossed, in what appears to be a clash of nations. It is said, according to CBS foreign affairs expert Ian Bremmer, that after this picture was taken, Trump stood up, took two starbursts out of his suit pocket and threw them on the table saying, “Here Angela, don’t say I never give you anything.” Over the course of his presidency, relations between Europe and the United States have been anything but harmonious. President Trump has explicitly communicated and demonstrated his hostility towards the continent on countless occasions, with the European Union and Germany as the main targets in the firing line. After four long, strenuous, and painful years for US and EU relations, Joe Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States will almost certainly bring the US away from an ideology underpinned by nationalism and unilateralism towards one that is instead focused on increased international cooperation. Europe is ready for a new American leader, particularly in this time of debilitating crisis, and it is looking likely that Biden could be its saving grace.

In trade, President Trump was not the easiest partner to work with. After an increase in tariffs on European aluminium and steel products in 2018 (which the EU claimed were inconsistent with the rules of the World Trade Organisation), a threat to impose up to 25 percent tariffs on automobile imports, and a stalemate over subsidies in a conflict involving Boeing and Airbus, leaders within the EU are adamant on starting a new and fresh dialogue with their American counterpart. While there is certainly no doubt that Biden will be easier to work with, this does not guarantee that he will not also pursue an ‘America first’ approach. In fact, on the campaign trail, audiences saw him enthusiastically pledge for a ‘Buy American’ trade policy, not too dissimilar to the protectionism Trump has wholly advocated. The uncertainties don’t stop there. While the EU has committed plans to enforce a digital tax on tech giants in order to adapt to the increasing digitalised economy, the US, as was evidenced with the previous administration, is unlikely to support and agree to this measure for two reasons. Firstly, the companies being taxed are predominantly all American, and secondly, the loyalties of the Democratic Party lie within Silicon Valley. The EU has stated in the past that it will comfortably take on the digital tax on its own, but is this too bold a move to make if, in parallel, it is looking to rebuild a strong relationship with its transatlantic partner? All in all, while we can safely say that Biden will not be chucking starbursts on a table in a huff any time soon, this does not guarantee that trade will be a walk in the park for the EU.

On a more positive note, Trump’s loss is a tremendous win for climate activists, as well as for the green-driven EU. After President Trump’s shock departure from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, his relentless denial of the increasing threat of climate change that swayed masses, and his commitment to rolling back environmental regulations, Biden’s election to the presidency is a monumental political UNO reverse card. While climate activists argue that we should be conscious of the fact that Western governments’ initiatives thus far have not been ambitious enough, Biden has proven himself to be a worthy ally of the cause. His environmental proposals - including the reinstatement of the US in the Paris Climate Agreement, his plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and an investment of $2 trillion into the climate crisis - are considered, according to the BBC, as some of the most impressive of any Presidential candidate yet. With the EU also committing a heavy and ambitious agenda towards tackling climate change, there is now an increased incentive to encourage each other towards achieving their respective green targets. This may also be the policy area that warms relations between the two if trade does not go as smoothly as anticipated.

President Trump was able to pursue his anti-science and climate change denial agenda because of the illiberalist and right-wing sentiment that had brewed within the US over the last 10 years. Having a nationalist, populist, anti-establishment, and (more generally) divisive figure such as Trump elected as leader of the world’s greatest superpower did not marry well with the EU’s principles and the European project itself. His election in 2016 was an added justification to the Euroscepticism that rocked the continent’s political sphere, which divided populations across numerous Member States and consequently led to a slight ‘disintegration’ of the EU triggered by the UK’s referendum vote to leave the Union. Now that this figurehead for polarisation has failed in his re-election for a second term, Europe along with the United States can concentrate on encouraging an international political environment and arena focused on cooperation, unity, multilateralism and truth that enhances democracies across the world.

Could President Trump’s loss be the trigger for the gradual dissolution of the populist era?

The majority of EU Member States certainly hope so, as evidenced by the wave of congratulatory speeches from these countries for newly-elected President Joe Biden. On the other hand, members like Hungary and Poland, whose leaders in power are antagonistically Eurosceptic and conservative, could now be backed into a corner. Although these countries’ power to veto may halt any further European progress – as evidenced by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki recent blocking of the EU’s €1.82 trillion budget-and-recovery package – a reconstruction of social and political sentiment will take time, but that time starts now. With regard to Brexit, Biden will also be a welcome presence. As a man fiercely proud of his Irish roots, Biden is cautious about any damage to the Good Friday Agreement – an agreement that the Democrats’ were in fact heavily involved with under President Clinton – even tweeting about it and the negative effect it could have on a future UK and US trade deal. With this in mind, including Biden’s own knowledge of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ideology – describing him as a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump – it is clear that the EU has the upper hand.

One key lesson that the EU has learnt from Donald Trump’s presidency is, as German Chancellor Merkel recently said in her congratulatory speech for Biden, that “America is and will remain our closest ally, but it expects more from us – and rightly so.” The EU continues to rely significantly on the US in security and defence, with its member states often failing to reach the spending requirement set under NATO rules. Trump’s decision to drag over nine-thousand troops away from Germany, to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and his recent threat to pull the US out of Afghanistan have increasingly pressured the EU to think of a new strategy for European defence. Although it is expected that Biden may not be as harsh as Trump, considering his clear priority on rebuilding transatlantic relations, it is long overdue that the EU begin to solidify its own military foothold, pay its bills, and also start to fill the void the UK will inevitably leave behind within the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy. What's more, an autonomous EU could create a more powerful front with regard to other foreign relations. As Biden will most likely have his focus concentrated predominantly on China, the US will expect the EU to deal with the next global powerhouse on the list: Russia.

After four years of uncertainty, of turbulence and of insecurity, the EU is ready to start afresh. It is important to remember that the Biden administration will struggle to push its agenda through Congress, but even more important to understand that the mere presence of Joe Biden in office will have a defining impact on US and EU relations. With a friendly face in the White House, now is the chance for the EU to show how reliable and powerful a force it can be within the long-awaited post-Trump era.

Image - Flickr (European Parliament/ Pietro Naj-Oleari)



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