Biden aims for a reunited West
This month’s US-EU summit risks being overshadowed in a feast of international meetings from the G7 to NATO, but its importance should not be underestimated.
Both US President Joe Biden and the EU are keen to rebuild a strong transatlantic alliance. And all parties recognize that, important as nations such as the UK and Canada are, it is the relationship between these two world powers that is key to this.
EU-US disagreements during the Trump presidency were legion, from climate change to trade and multilateralism. The mercurial US president also ruffled many feathers in Europe with his championing of Brexit and calls for broader dismemberment of the bloc in the harshest anti-EU rhetoric of any US president.
The president’s diplomatic disdain for the EU went significantly beyond that of any of his predecessors. He even remarkably declared: “I think the EU is a foe, what they do to us in trade.” This highlighted that while Trump had concerns with the continent’s relatively low levels of defense spending compared with that of the US, the trade front was the deepest source of his frustration.
While these concerns have by no means disappeared with Biden, his positioning is quite different. One example is his flipping of US priorities over trade deals. Trump favored an early agreement with the post-Brexit UK, and the EU a possible second, while Biden has reversed the order.
Biden’s election also probably affected the calculations of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson last autumn on the Brexit deal with the EU. Had the mercurial Trump won a second term, Johnson may have felt emboldened to plump for no deal with the EU, not least as a US-UK trade agreement night have been an early priority of a re-elected pro-Brexit Trump. However, this became a significantly more risky undertaking with Biden in office.
Outside of trade, one of the areas where the EU will be seeking Biden’s support is Northern Ireland, where the post-Brexit transition has been troubled. On Wednesday, the UK government’s Brexit minister Lord Frost asserted that the new Northern Ireland Protocol was “unsustainable” in its present form, despite his agreement to it in December.
Biden’s forthcoming trip provides a window for Washington and Brussels to take an important step back, and try to concentrate again on unity.
This deal has resulted in Northern Ireland effectively remaining within the EU single market and had raised concerns over its potential threat to the Good Friday Agreement. A “stock-taking” meeting between Frost and Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, may take place as early as next week, and the US administration could yet play an important brokering role.
For Biden, the ultimate ambition with this dialogue with the EU, and indeed the UK, Canada and Japan, is to try to bring the Western alliance back together after several troubled years. This is especially so with the rise of China and its deepening ties with Russia.
On China, Biden at the EU meeting will discuss the need for Western countries to unify and make investments to strengthen collective competitiveness and the importance of updating global rules to tackle economic challenges such as those perceived by Beijing. He will also differentiate his response from that of the Trump era when the primary US action was unilaterally challenging China over its trade policies by imposing tariffs. In so doing, the new US president will signal that the US has recommitted to multilateralism, and is seeking “global solutions” after the worldwide economic, political and social hammer blow dealt by the pandemic.
On Russia, the EU will welcome the restatement of longstanding US policy toward Moscow. Trump, for instance, called several times for Russia to be allowed to rejoin the G7 (as the G8), as was the case from 1997 to 2013, which shocked the EU after recent behavior from Moscow.
Top European leaders, including Angela Merkel, pushed back on this and called instead for a unified response to Moscow’s malign international interference such as cyber and chemical weapon attacks. These European calls were successful, and despite Trump’s desire for warmer ties with Vladimir Putin, Russia was told it couldrejoin the Western club only if it changed course and an environment was once again created in which it waspossible for the G8 to hold reasonable discussions.
Biden’s forthcoming trip provides a window for Washington and Brussels to take an important step back, and try to concentrate again on unity. If they can do this, it will be a milestone in Biden’s goal of reunifying, post-Trump and post-Brexit, and focusing on the big strategic questions facing the West in the 2020s.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics