A new era for EU transatlantic relations? Let’s be friends again, Joe!

By Laura Contin November 13, 2020 10:49 am

The victory of Joe Biden in the recent US elections has been welcomed with a sigh of relief by many leaders and decision-makers across Europe, who think that a Biden presidency will represent a golden opportunity not only to revamp the rather wobbly transatlantic alliance but also to shape and revitalise it for the years to come.

Over the past four years under the Trump administration, EU-US relations have been strongly challenged, with disagreement between the two large trading blocs over a number of key issues such as climate change and trade and, importantly, total inability to coordinate a position on how to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Bearing the promise to bring the EU closer to the US than it was  under the Obama administration, Biden’s victory seems to symbolise the light at the end of the tunnel and a new era for transatlantic relations between the EU and the US. But what does a Biden victory mean for the EU in the context of some key current challenges?

A Covid-19 coordinated response

The already deteriorating relations between the EU and the US under Trump were exacerbated in the face of the COVID-19 global pandemic. While the EU’s priority has been to plan a response – with many hiccups along the way, starting from the challenge of getting its own Member States to agree on a coordinated response  –  it was also looking at the US for coordination and support. However, under the Trump presidency, the US has assumed a non-consistent and rather negationist stance in the fight against COVID-19, clashing with the more sensible and concerned approach taken by most EU leaders who,  albeit at different paces, have taken the pandemic more seriously. Additionally, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization was not met positively by the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen who, in relation to the ongoing pandemic, affirmed that “some have chosen to isolate” (instead of joining EU efforts to find global solutions).

Joe Biden’s victory, for some, represents a renewed hope for the EU to find more support across the pond in this fight. Janez Lenarčič, the European Commissioner for crisis management pointed out that, with Joe Biden in the White House, the fight against COVID-19 will get more effective. With a change in the administration, the EU will have “a more reliable partner” to coordinate a much-needed impactful response to bring this global pandemic under control. Or at the very least it will have as an interlocuter, someone who believe the pandemic even exists.

In the meantime, the European Commission has urged EU Member States to grant more legal power to Brussels and create a “European Health Union” to manage future crises, as part of a broader plan to strengthen the EU’s health security framework, and to reinforce the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies.

Climate change

The fight against climate change has also been a point of contention between the two blocs under the Trump presidency. Commission President von der Leyen has openly challenged the US on climate-change targets in last year’s United Nations climate talks, unveiling the EU’s ambition to bring emission levels down to zero by the middle of this century in its bid to lead the push to reduce greenhouse gases. Trump’s denial of climate change, which culminated with the US decision to leave the Paris Agreement on climate, could not be farther from the EU’s ambition to be the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, as part of its flagship initiative the European Green Deal.

With Biden in the White House, the conversation on climate change will take a whole different tone. As a symbolic gesture to US allies and the rest of the world, including the EU, Biden has committed to re-joining the Paris Agreement as a top priority for his new administration. This would be for the EU a crucial goodwill gesture to show that the US is serious again about helping in the fight against climate change. In his electoral campaign, Biden also promised to spend $2 trillion (£1.5 trillion) on tackling the crisis with the ultimate goal of the US reaching net-carbon emissions by 2050, again very much in line with the EU’s long term ambition.

Brexit

Last but not least, Joe Biden’s victory may have a crucial impact on Brexit and on the future US-UK trade negotiations, as the EU and the UK enter the last stages of their talks. In the face of the controversial Internal Market Bill that could threaten the Withdrawal Agreement, Biden (a proud Irish descendant himself) openly voiced his concern warning that if the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland was to become a casualty of Brexit, there would not be a trade deal with the UK.

This approach certainly sparked some worries in Downing Street as failure to reach a trade deal with the US will be an “embarrassing defeat for the government, threatening the UK’s status internationally and the government’s approval ratings at home”. Additionally, it is rumoured that, given Biden’s traditional Atlanticist approach, his presidency will prioritise and strengthen ties with Brussels, Germany and France, with a careful eye to repair, restore and reinvigorate transatlantic relations.

What is next?

Beyond these three key issues, there is much more to the EU-US relationship that could be discussed or reported on. Some of the expected outcomes of a stronger partnership may never materialise as the EU (just like many other international actors scarred by the results of the COVID-19 outbreak) also looks to establish their own strategic independence once and for all. What is clear is that Biden’s victory could shift the tone of the conversation between the US and the EU after four years of unspoken dislike and open disagreement over other issues, such as trade, NATO support, Russia and China relations, challenges with big tech companies, to mention a few.

Is this conversation expected to lead to an immediate smooth and friendly cooperation on all fronts? Possibly not. Biden will certainly expect the EU to act as a partner and not as a competitor on issues of technology, economic and trade policies, however, it is possible that there will be friction on some issues, such as 5G, Artificial Intelligence and tech in general. On this last point specifically, the EU and the US have been drifting apart for a few years now. The EU has been working hard in recent years to regulate the tech industry, especially with regard to digital taxes, clashing with Washington’s “softer” position towards the likes of Google and Amazon. A Biden presidency is not expected to change the US stance on key issues of contention, such as where big tech companies should pay their taxes. Biden has often criticised tech companies for “shirking their tax obligations” but his campaign platform does not seem to include any measures signalling concrete proposals on this front. Only time will tell whether an aligned position on this front will arise as part of this renewed friendship.

It is also worth noting that within the EU itself, there are some EU leaders who did not particularly wished for a Biden presidency. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, is known for his wholehearted support for Trump’s re-election. Under a Biden administration, the US will strongly advocate for democratic standards and independent media in foreign countries, the very point of contention causing great tension between the EU and Hungary itself. Therefore, it is quite possible that the relations between Hungary and this new administration could be rather tense. On a similar position will also be Slovenia. Prime minister Janez Janša prematurely – and wrongly – congratulated Trump on the results of the elections and expressed quite strong views on Biden claiming he would be “one of the weakest presidents in history.” Slovenia will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from 1st July 2021. Will Slovenia try to impose Janša’s own opinion on Biden when steering the EU’s agenda over the future EU-US relations? It remains to be seen. Action in European diplomacy is known to be weak and convoluted as any decision ultimately needs the backing of every Member State under current procedures.

In the meantime, and in an unprecedented move, it is rumoured that EU leaders may invite Joe Biden to participate in a video summit with them “to discuss re-energising of the transatlantic relations” before he is even sworn in, a clear signal that the EU is ready to start repairing its friendship with its oldest, and most powerful ally as soon as possible.

The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients in the European Union, the UK and beyond. For more information on our EU work, please contact our Director of European Affairs, Viviana Spaghetti at Viviana.spaghetti@whitehouseconsulting.co.uk

By Laura Contin November 13, 2020 10:49 am

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