Home >News >World >What US-Europe relations under Biden may look like

After four years of turbulence, this could be a year for rebuilding trans-Atlantic diplomatic ties.

The new U.S. president brings to the job long experience in European relations, and a nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, who is deeply knowledgeable about the Continent as well. The policy priorities of the incoming president, compared with the stated goals of his predecessor, also are more closely aligned with those of America’s traditional European allies.

President-elect Joe Biden’s senior advisers make clear that they believe Donald Trump’s unilateralism was a failure, and they are signaling that they want to work with allies and partners in Europe to deal with common threats.

U.S. plans that are likely to be applauded by European governments include rejoining the Paris climate-change accord, and attending the U.N.-affiliated climate summit in November in Glasgow. Mr. Biden is also expected to reassert U.S. support for collective defense inside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been the cornerstone of the 30-nation trans-Atlantic alliance, over which Mr. Trump cast doubt.

European officials are hopeful Washington will re-engage with an agreement among allies to curb Iran’s nuclear program—an agreement from which Mr. Trump withdrew—and to pursue a possible wider framework to deal with other Iranian activities the allies believe are a threat to Middle East security.

On trade, given the incoming administration’s domestic concerns, such as Covid-19 and a weak economy, nobody expects free-trade deals to be a U.S. priority. But it should be possible for Washington and Brussels to de-escalate conflicts that were ramped up in the Trump years and to ease some practical obstacles to trade.

“Europe has never had a more sympathetic White House or one so convinced of the need to work with allies. We need to seize the day," says Anthony Gardner, a former American ambassador to the European Union who supported Mr. Biden’s campaign.

The world has changed significantly in the four years since a Democrat last occupied the White House. China’s rise has continued. The U.K., traditionally America’s closest European ally, has left the EU. And Angela Merkel, Germany’s leader since 2005, is preparing to leave the political stage.

President Trump’s attacks on the EU and on Germany, Europe’s economic engine, have left their mark. A survey in November by Germany’s Körber Stiftung think tank showed that 91% of Germans believed that trans-Atlantic relations had worsened in the past four years; 78% said they believed relations could normalize under President Biden.

During the Trump years, questions arose about the reliability of the U.S. as a European ally due to Mr. Trump’s nationalistic interpretation of where U.S. interests lay. While Mr. Trump’s was not the first U.S. administration to pressure European governments to spend more on their defense, Mr. Trump hinted that the U.S. support against external aggression would hinge on their doing so. The Biden White House, too, is expected to continue to put pressure on Europe to take on more of the security burden, though it is likely to put on hold Mr. Trump’s plans to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany.

“There is a debate in Europe that wasn’t there with the Obama administration: How fundamentally has the U.S. changed? Is Biden the last gasp of the way the U.S. used to operate?" says Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

The relative discord during the Trump years revived talk in European capitals, led by Paris, that the Continent should seek its own “strategic autonomy" on the world stage. What that will mean in practice, if anything, isn’t yet clear.

Volker Rühe, a former German defense minister, points out that Europeans live next to Russia and so can’t defend themselves without the U.S. But, he says, “There is no doubt Europe has to play a bigger role within the alliance."

And that, Mr. Rühe says, will hinge on Germany doing something it has never done: playing its proper role as the EU’s largest conventional power.

Prospects for this might retreat further, he says, if, as seems likely, Germany’s Christian Democratic Party goes into coalition with the Greens to run the country following federal elections in September. If that happens, “in practice, it will be very difficult to do the necessary kind of things to make Germany a fair partner" with the U.S., Mr. Rühe says.

Divisions in trans-Atlantic alliances also could arise in newer areas, such as the challenge China poses to the West. The EU last month struck an investment agreement with China—even after senior figures in Mr. Biden’s team urged Brussels to hold off.

Mr. Daalder says the new administration’s approach to China is likely to shift from the “unrelenting confrontation" of the Trump years toward what he called “competitive coexistence," a stance that may be fairly close to Europe’s emerging view of Beijing.

Jake Sullivan, named as Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, has said the U.S. will hold talks with its allies to discuss a host of Chinese issues, including trade abuses and forced labor, harmful environmental practices, technology, human rights and Chinese military expansionism.

In foreign affairs, China will be “priority No. 1" for the new administration, says Mr. Gardner, the former EU ambassador. “If allies matter, they need to matter on China," he says.

Europe should also demonstrate that working together more broadly can yield tangible benefits to both sides, Mr. Gardner says. Both tariffs and non-tariff obstacles to trade should be on the table, he says.

Current irritants include the long-running Boeing-Airbus trade dispute and tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Additional discussions, through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, are likely to resolve a looming dispute over European taxation of U.S. digital giants.

The new administration is also expected to unblock efforts to find a new head of the World Trade Organization and to allow new judges to be appointed to revive the WTO’s dispute-settlement procedures.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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