Biden’s Europe challenge: Repair tattered trans-Atlantic ties

3 min


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Pat Cox

Biden’s Europe challenge: Repair tattered trans-Atlantic ties

Pat Cox is a former president of the European Parliament.

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DUBLIN — The weighty insurgency signaled by the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 had reverberations around the world, perhaps nowhere more so than among America’s European allies.

Over the next four years, Euro-Atlantic relations deteriorated to an unprecedented level as the U.S. president embraced Brexit, abandoned the Paris climate accords and damned the European Union as a “foe.” Europeans watched in dismay as Trump detonated the Iran deal, belittled NATO allies, paralyzed the World Trade Organization and abandoned the World Health Organization in the midst of a global pandemic.

Meanwhile, an assorted assembly of Trumpian fifth columnists comprising dubious diplomats, conspiracy-seeking minions and unctuous acolytes spread the gospel of discontent in Europe with evangelical fervor.

Against this background, it is easy to appreciate why the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency has been greeted with such a sense of relief among European leaders. A U.S. administration not hell-bent on undermining and destroying the fabric of global multilateralism offers a respite, a pause for mutually respectful reflection and engagement.

And yet, it may be too soon to celebrate. The policy issues that drove a wedge between Europe and Trump’s America will not disappear overnight, nor will the anti-establishment fervor the U.S. president inspired in some.

Trump’s greatest European cheerleaders were the EU’s troublesome twins, Hungary and Poland — specifically Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s de-facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who found succor in their ideological compatibility.

Orbán, with justification, has argued that he was Europe’s Trump before Trump. His propensity for breaking democratic norms, backsliding on the rule of law, indulging in crony capitalism, as well as his hostility to the media, his aversion to immigrants — Muslims in particular – and his antagonism to liberal attitudes regarding gay rights and abortion made them easy bedfellows. Poland, meanwhile, gained from NATO’s strengthening of its Eastern flank and U.S. support against Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline project.

These specific policy postures are likely to remain despite the change of administration in the U.S., even if Budapest and Warsaw will be well outside their comfort zones with the values that President-elect Biden brings to the table.

Elsewhere in Europe, the election result has inspired more tangible changes of heart.

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In London, Boris Johnson — who had earned himself the sobriquet of “Britain’s Trump” — used proximity to Trump as his key calling card in inflating his “Global Britain” balloon and energize his rallying calls of “taking back control” and getting Brexit “done.”

Ever the pragmatist, Johnson now has seized one of the few positives of the COVID-19 crisis — the postponement to next year of the COP26 in Glasgow — to woo a willing Biden with a commitment to lead in the fight against climate change. Expect a last-minute EU-U.K. Brexit deal, a get-out-of-jail card to avoid complicated U.S.-U.K. entanglements over the Belfast Agreement, a G7 bromance in 2021 and British reliability as a NATO partner.

Biden’s election victory is also sparking soul-searching elsewhere in Europe.

Trust, essential to any partnership, was ruptured under Trump. Where past Munich Security Conferences worried about Russian aggression, last year was marked by fear of American abandonment.

That fear led to a realization that Europe has to become more self-reliant, not least in terms of security and defense. In part, this is a necessary response to long-standing U.S. demands for greater burden-sharing. But it is also an acknowledgment of the need to develop capabilities that will afford it more strategic autonomy in the face of an unpredictable U.S.

The question is already a source of tension between France and Germany — who don’t see eye to eye on the extent to which Europe can or should still rely on the U.S. — and will likely become a sticking point with the U.S. defense establishment.

Another point of contention will be relations with China. The EU wants to carve out its own place and defend its own vision when it comes to relations with Beijing, which it sees as a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a strategic rival — in contrast to U.S. policy under Trump.

The EU does not wish to find itself ground down between two polar rivals in a China-U.S. dominated G2 world — hence the emphasis on more European sovereignty, the guiding principle of French President Emmanuel Macron’s policy quest.

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It’s clear, then, that Trump’s departure won’t erase divergences on trade, technology and taxation that have caused friction between the EU and the U.S. over the past four years.

And yet, on both sides of the Atlantic, there is an overwhelming sense that now is a moment of opportunity — to rediscover the value of what we have in common, to fashion change through design and not dissonance, to accelerate and elevate the target of saving our fragile planet and to revitalize and reform the multilateral system.

It may be the last such chance. The status quo ante has passed. The extent to which evident domestic political and judicial constraints in the U.S. will limit Biden’s policy horizon and execution remains to be seen, but both sides need to get back to the future, stronger together than apart.

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