For almost four years, the European Union (EU) and its leadership have been at the receiving end of the United States’ (US) President Donald Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy. President Trump had not only insisted on an over-haul of the entire US-EU trade relationship and NATO but has also backed Eurosceptic leaders and questioned the European solidarity. The current US election results will not only have an impact on the domestic policies of the country but is likely to have a tremendous impact on its transatlantic allies. With the Democratic candidate Joe Biden winning the elections, the paper looks at the emerging trends in the transatlantic partnership. It also tries to assess the trajectory of the future transatlantic relations.
Europe-US Relations: The Past Four Years
President Donald Trump became the first American president in the history of the transatlantic partnership to view EU as a threat, undermined its integration by calling Brexit referendum as “great victory”[i] and time and again disregarded NATO by putting conditionalities to common defence under its Article 5. He not only withdrew US from the Iran Nuclear Agreement, which was viewed as a diplomatic achievement in the EU[ii] but also went on to pull out from various other multilateral institutions and Agreements like World Health Organisation (WHO), the Paris Climate Change Agreement and theUnited Nations Human Rights Council, thereby signalling a major retrenching from its global commitments. President Trump has accused the EU for engaging in unfair trade practices that had led to the increased US trade deficit of $179 billion in 2019[iii]. Trade frictions between the two partners also increased with the Trump administration placing sanctions on European steel and aluminium exports, which were justified on the basis of national security.
On several strategic issues, EU and its member states were blindsided with the decisions of the Trump administration. The withdrawal of troops from the US-led efforts against Islamic State in Syria in which many European countries have participated is a prominent illustration. This led many analysts to contend that the decision paved the way for Turkish incursions in Syria against the Kurdish forces.[iv] This was followed by a unilateral decision to withdraw troops from Germany, on the grounds of the German failure to meet the required NATO defence commitment of 2% of GDP on defence. The demand for more financial commitment from other member states is not unique to the Trump administration, but has been raised during the Barack Obama and G.W. Bush presidencies as well. However, differences have become more pronounced in the past few years. The key implication of these moves was the question it raised on the Trump administration’s commitment to transatlantic ties on one hand and an opportunity for European countries to relook their defence relations with the US and to recalibrate it for the 21st century on the other.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a further deterioration with the US administration unilaterally imposing travel bans to the Schengen area in March 2020. President Trump accused “the EU of failing to take the same precautions as the US in fighting the virus”.[v] In its response, the EU said that the coronavirus was a global crisis and not limited to any continent; therefore requiring cooperation rather than unilateral action.[vi]Reports of US attempts to acquire the German pharmaceutical manufacturing company, CureVac, spearheading vaccine research, added further strains in the already fraught partnership.[vii] The US not only refused to be part of multilateral effort to combat the virus[viii], but also decided to suspend its share of funding for the WHO, which stood in contrast to the European call for strengthening the organisation. Calling WHO and World Trade Organisation “Bobbsey Twins… responsible for ripping off US”[ix], President Trump has time and again reiterated his long-standing threat that the US might pull out of these organisations completely, adding to the cocktail of contentious issues in US-EU relations.
Key Trends in the Transatlantic Partnership under Joe Biden
With the election of Joe Biden as President-elect, there is a renewed hope in European countries towards the revival of transatlantic partnership and regarding the US commitment on a range of multilateral issues like climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, efforts to deal with the pandemic, etc. The following are a summary of some of the key trends expected in transatlantic relations:
Trend one – there is an expectation of continued protectionist trends. With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projecting the European GDP to contract by 7% in 2020[x], and of the US by 4.3%[xi], there would be an emphasis on the economic revival and localisation.Trade issues between the US and the EU - such as digital tax on US Tech-companies, increasing trade deficit in favour of EU, Airbus-Boeing - would remain, but it is expected that the negotiations willbecome relatively easier. The cancellation of sanctions on aluminium and steel are also expected by the European allies. Another key economic trend could be in the area of global supply chains. As both the US and EU seek to diversify away from their dependence on China, they can coordinate their outlooks and approaches in integrating their supply chains specially in the field of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. Similarly, the reforms of the WTO may also get a boost under the Biden Presidency, as he favours multilateralism and modernisation of the organisation, themes which are also pushed by his European allies.[xii]
Trend two – the Biden presidency would for most part follow a combination of the trajectory of Obama and Trump administrations in terms of their foreign policy outlooks. The foreign policy pivot would not be to Europe but will remain in Asia amid an assertive China. Relations with China would remain as one of the most important agenda for transatlantic ties. There are expectations that Biden Presidency would follow a tough stand against China, like some European leaders have taken in the past few months with the implementation of several safeguards against the acquisitions of strategic assets by Chinese companies in Europe. Apart from questioning the economic practices and technology transfers by China, issues related to the security law in Hong Kong, human rights issues in Xinjiang, debate over 5G technology are expected to come to the forefront under the Biden Presidency. Biden’s idea of China as a “special challenge”[xiii] fits with the EU’s idea of China as a “systemic rival, a competitor and a partner”, thereby giving the allies a common ground to formulate a coherent transatlantic approach towards the country. Moreover, the new EU-US dialogue on China would provide a key platform for advancing mutual interests and managing their differences.
Trend three – the new Presidency would be open to introducing new and crucial policy changes with regards to climate change. President-elect Biden, during his campaign, hadrepeatedly said that he would re-join the Paris Climate treaty and would also introduce wide-ranging initiatives for US to achieve net zero-carbon emission goals by 2050[xiv]. He plans to spend $2 trillion over four years to bring down the emissions and upgrading of infrastructure to become energy efficient. This matches with the EU’s targets under the new green deal, giving the partners a platform to further expand cooperation in this critical issue and formulate a comprehensive policy outlook.[xv] With the Biden Presidency picking John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, underscores the commitment of the President towards making climate issues as top priority.
Trend four – there are renewed expectations that the Biden presidency would be more open to diplomacy and multilateralism with enhanced cooperation with its allies at the WHO, WTO and other multilateral forums. The idea of holding a Global Summit for Democracy in 2021enunciated by the Biden campaign to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” - is something that would be welcomed by the European allies. This also aligns with the idea proposed by UK in May 2020 to create a new grouping of ten leading democracies - G7 along with South Korea, India, and Australia – “to create alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technologies to avoid relying on China”.[xvi]
Trend five – security and threat perceptions –President Trump had been very vocal in his threats of not defending the NATO countries from an attack unless they fulfilled their financial obligations, thereby diluting Article 5 of the NATO charter. Therefore, one of the primary goals of Biden Presidency would be to bring back the trust among the allies. That being said, the commitment to NATO would be renewed but the administration is going to follow the rule-book of 2% GDP contribution to the defence of the country. In terms of the threat perceptions, there is a fundamental difference in what is perceived as threat among the allies. Some of the European member states, like Poland and Baltic, view Russia as the primary threat while others, mainly France and Greece, are concerned with the threats emerging from the Mediterranean (specifically Turkey). On the other hand, US would be mostly focussed on China and Asia, which do not necessarily fit in with the threat perception of European countries.
The pandemic has resulted in the transatlantic allies becoming inward looking and pre-occupied with economic and public health recovery which is going to dominate the agenda for the time being. Despite the fact that Joe Biden has won the elections – the European leaders do not expect the transatlantic relationship to go back to what it was before. Many outstanding issues like defence expenditure, digital taxation by EU, trade issues, etc. remain key friction points. However, the reset in the relations could give them an opportunity to set an ambitious agenda that matches the current geopolitical realities. The European Commission’s proposal for a “New EU-US Agenda for Global Change” focusing on joint action on COVID-19, the recovery, climate change, technology, trade and standards, and strengthening democracy around the world – could be the new platform for advancing dialogue.
The EU High Representative Josep Borrell wrote recently “No other pair on the international stage can match the partnership between the EU and the US. Neither Europe nor America will find a major partner that is more aligned and more powerful. After a rocky four years, it is time for a fresh start. The election of Joe Biden as US president gives us the chance to make it happen”[xvii] – highlighting the optimism felt in Europe with the election of Joe Biden as President-elect. However, the ground realities are a little different. What can be concluded is that the transatlantic relations will not revert to the older times. Instead of putting energy intosimply reviving the alliance, a new vision of cooperation is required to renew the relationship and to address the most pressing issues in the future. The EU needs to continue on the path it has forged in the last four years to promote and safeguard its own interests to present itself as a credible partner in the transatlantic relationship. It needs also to define its relations with the strategic powers based on its own interests and pragmatic understanding to further its own goals and values.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal
[i]The Guardian, 24 June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/24/donald-trump-hails-eu-referendum-result-as-he-arrives-in-uk, Accessed on 12 November 2020
[ii]The Atlantic, 5 October 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/iran-nuclear-trump-europe/542094/, Accessed on 12 November 2020
[iv]Euronews, 9 September 2019, https://www.euronews.com/2019/10/09/turkey-begins-military-offensive-in-northern-syria-after-us-pulls-out-troops,Accessed on 12 November 2020
[vii]The New York Times, 15 March 2020,https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/world/europe/cornonavirus-vaccine-us-germany.html, Accessed on 13 November 2020
[viii]NPR, 2 September 2020,https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/09/02/908711419/u-s-wont-join-who-led-coronavirus-vaccine-effort-white-house-says, Accessed on 13 November 2020
[ix]Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Briefing, White House, 13 April 2020,https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-vice-president-pence-members-coronavirus-task-force-press-briefing-25/, Accessed on 13 November 2020
[x]Europe, Regional Economic Outlook, IMF, October 2020, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/REO/EU/Issues/2020/10/19/REO-EUR-1021, Accessed on 14 November 2020
[xi]Transcript of October 2020 World Economic Outlook Press Briefing, IMF, 13 October 2020, https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/10/13/tr101320-transcript-of-october-2020-world-economic-outlook-press-briefing, Accessed on 14 November 2020
[xiii]Joe Biden, ‘Why America Must Lead Again’, Foreign Affairs, April/May 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again, Accessed on 14 November 2020
[xv] The European Green Deal, European Commission, 11 December 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/european-green-deal-communication_en.pdf, Accessed on 15 November 2020
[xvi]The Times, 29 May 2020,https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/downing-street-plans-new-5g-club-of-democracies-bfnd5wj57, Accessed on 15 November 2020
[xvii]JosepBorell, ‘How to Kick-Start a New Trans-Atlantic Era’, The Times, 10 December 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/10/how-to-kick-start-a-new-trans-atlantic-era/?utm_source=PostUp&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=28306&utm_term=Editors%20Picks%20OC&?tpcc=28306, Accessed on 11 December 2020