Between Change and Continuity: Biden is Good for Europe, but Not a Miracle-Worker

Written by | Sunday, November 22nd, 2020

As long as Donald Trump doesn’t stage a coup d’état, Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President on 20 January 2021, and most of Europe will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Biden’s election will make it easier for the EU and the US to forge a common transatlantic approach to many of the challenges facing them. Unlike Trump, Biden will not try to undermine the EU (or NATO): he is a believer in the value of international institutions. His victory signals a setback for European populists, who will no longer be able to look to the US president for encouragement when they challenge EU values such as respect for the rule of law. The populists will not disappear, however: their support is driven more by internal economic and social dynamics than by external support.

Europe should reach out quickly to the US to re-establish co-operation on a range of policy areas, starting with combating the COVID-19 pandemic. On climate too, there is likely to be scope to re-establish a common transatlantic approach, as Biden will re-join the Paris Climate agreement. Congress is likely to constrain his ability to invest in priorities such as a Green New Deal. But the EU should still try to co-operate on other areas, such as co-ordinating assistance to developing countries to reduce emissions. Biden will recommit the US to NATO and to the defence of its allies, and may also rethink some of Trump’s troop withdrawals from Europe. But the US will still press Europeans (albeit more politely than Trump did) to meet their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Europe will find hard to do this given the economic consequences of COViD-19, but European countries should at least aim not to cut their defence spending.

Policy towards Iran was a particularly contentious issue between Europe (including the UK) and the US under Trump. Biden has stated his intention to re-join the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from, as long as Iran returns to full compliance with it. It won’t be easy to achieve that aim but Europeans can facilitate contacts between the US and Iran, with Iran gradually rolling back its nuclear activities in exchange for the US allowing it to export more oil. On Turkey too, the EU should seize the chance for a common approach with the US. Like the EU, Biden will not seek confrontation with Turkey and wants to keep it within the NATO ‘family’. But he will be more willing than Trump was to apply pressure to Ankara to halt its aggressive maritime behaviour towards Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Europeans should be prepared for the US to take a less prominent role in regional conflicts. Biden will probably use US forces only to provide limited support to allies on the ground. Europeans cannot count on the US to advance their interests. They will have to co-ordinate their own positions and take the lead in proposing joint policies to address regional conflicts. Biden will also be under domestic pressure to prioritise human rights concerns in relationships with allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This could lead to divergence with Europe, which depends on its partners in the Middle East and North Africa to control migration and fight terrorism, and downplays their human rights records.

Biden played a leading role in the Obama administration’s handling of Russia. Europe should welcome an early agreement with Moscow to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which is due to expire on 5 February 2021. But Europeans may be disappointed if they hope for a softer US line on one of the most contentious issues in EU-US relations: American sanctions on European companies involved in building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Establishing a common transatlantic approach towards China won’t be easy. Biden will adopt a less abrasive tone than Trump towards Beijing, but the substance of US policy on China will remain tough as there is bipartisan American worry about China’s rise. Though the EU is showing increasing concern about China’s more assertive foreign policy and its human rights violations, it will be unwilling to be drawn into a confrontational relationship with Beijing.

From a European perspective, Biden’s victory promises a return to a more normal relationship with the US. A second Trump term would have risked putting an end to the transatlantic partnership. Relations under Biden might not be as rosy as most Europeans think, however: many disagreements preceded Trump, and will outlast him. Moreover, Biden will overwhelmingly be focused on fighting COVID-19 and its consequences and trying to heal America’s political divides. Europe’s problems will be a second-order issue.

Above all, Biden will not be able to reverse deep structural shifts in US politics and foreign policy. Europeans should be mindful of just how popular Trump’s brand of politics remains in the US. A more polished version of Trump, with the same isolationist ideas, could easily have prevailed and might prevail in 2024. Europeans should not be tempted to act as if Trump’s Presidency never happened and they have the luxury of being able to do nothing. They should invest in strengthening their capacity to protect their own interests, whoever sits in the White House.

President Biden: Good for Europe, but Not a Miracle-Worker – Opinion by Ian Bond and Luigi Scazzieri – Centre for European Reform / CER.

The Opinion can be downloaded here

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