Donald Trump has not yet left the White House and votes continue to be (re-)counted in some US states. But all the signs point to it: the next president of the United States of America will be Democrat Joe Biden – with Vice-President Kamala Harris by his side. What does the Democratic duo’s victory mean for transatlantic relations?
The representatives of the EU institutions – Council, Commission, European Parliament – congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on their election and expressed their desire to work together. The Member States of the European Union have followed suit, albeit in a continuum ranging from a barely diplomatically veiled enthusiasm to a rather reserved acknowledgement of a successful election campaign. Relief and high expectations were also expressed by liberal European heads of government. The Belgian Alexander de Croo, for example, called the election results an expression of vital democracy and expressed his hope that Kamala Harris in particular would be a role model for minorities. Estonia’s head of government, Jüri Ratas, described the USA as an indispensable strategic partner for his country and the EU, especially in security matters. And Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin immediately invited the Irish-born Biden to Ireland after a first phone call.
So is everything in order for the future four years of EU-U.S. relations? No, it will not be that simple. Admittedly, the four years of the Trump presidency were a constant transatlantic stress test with a partner in the White House, who implemented irrationality, lack of decency, abrupt policy changes and strategic short-sightedness such as shortness of breath as a political style. Joe Biden, on the other hand, who served as Vice President under Barack Obama for eight years and whom many Europeans call a friend, is credited with rationality, competence, decency and dignity. So first of all, relief is called for. However, despite all the euphoria, it must not be forgotten that in the end there are no friendships between states, but primarily interests that have to be balanced.
The central policy areas at stake in this balancing of interests are well known: Climate change, trade, security policy and China – and, of course, the fight against the COVID 19 pandemic. What can be expected in these areas in the relations between the administration of US President Biden and the EU?
Together Against Covid and Climate Change
The field will thus be wide open for cooperation in the joint fight against corona and its health and economic consequences. Likewise, one can expect that US federal policy under Biden will return to an active climate policy. He will re-enter the Paris Accord and play a constructive role in the fields of concrete climate policy in investment, regulation and international cooperation. It will make it easier for the EU to count on a strong partner again in these areas.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back in Trade Policy
The situation is more difficult when it comes to trade. Here Donald Trump, with his aggressive customs policy and the demonstratively celebrated renunciation of free trade, has not only shifted a basic axis of republican policy, but at the same time has basically politically defined the already traditionally less free-trade-savvy Democrats. Although Biden will not pursue a foolish “America First” course, he cannot celebrate globalisation and open markets as growth drivers in jubilant style if he does not want to thwart his recent election victories in the former industrial belt of the USA right away. However, his government will again be a partner when it comes to reforming multilateral institutions such as the WTO or the WHO. And: with a Biden/Harris administration, persistent and compromise-oriented negotiations and cooperation on trade and economic issues will actually be possible. Some observers even dream of a new attempt at a transatlantic free trade agreement. For that to happen, however, the EU would need to be united on the issue. And that is not the case either between or within its member states. This dream will hardly come true in the next four years under Biden.
The Ball is in Europe’s Court on Security Policy
Traditionally, the US has invested in its military capabilities, while the EU has focused on developing its welfare state. In other words, Europe has achieved its integration and America has protected this process. This admittedly somewhat simplistic calculation will no longer work under Joe Biden either. He will expect and demand more money and more responsibility from Europeans inside and outside NATO for their own security and for security in the world. More friendly than Trump, but more persistent. And the actors in the EU know that. In fact, Trump’s bulldozer style has given Europe’s political decision-makers more room for manoeuvre in this discussion over the past four years, since they were not expected to follow Trump’s undiplomatically formulated demands. It will be different with Joe Biden: he will be friendly but determined to demand the 2% GDP share for defence spending. So for Europeans, things are really getting serious now.
China Policy as Opportunity for Transatlantic Partnership
The issue of China remains. In positive terms, China policy offers the chance for a genuine transatlantic policy renaissance: what if the US and the EU were to implement a clever containment strategy side by side vis-à-vis China? For human rights, market economy, open societies and multilateralism. The US and Europe as the core of an open-accession alliance against state capitalism, one-party rule, neo-colonial Africa policy and persecution of minorities. There it would be: the EU as a global actor in accordance with its values. The USA will stick to its strategic focus on its system rival China even under Biden. Europeans will perhaps not have to decide which side they will be on in the future. But they will have to find a very smart way to be a credible ally with the US, without cutting off their relationship with China. We have already succeeded in doing this with the Soviet Union in the 20th century. But the Chinese challenge seems far greater; for both the US and the EU. All the more important that the Biden Presidency should now be used to formulate, agree and implement a common transatlantic policy.
Centrifugal Forces within the USA and the EU
All predictions and hopes for future transatlantic cooperation are, however, subject to a double domestic reservation on the part of the US: What is going on in the legislative and treaty details with a Senate that may still be dominated by the Republicans? And what concessions must Biden make to his Democratic Party, whose left wing will certainly demand a price for its share of the victory over Trump, while more centrist and conservative Democrats will promote a course that will make it possible to win back a decisive portion of previous Trump voters. In other words: resistance and centrifugal forces in Washington D.C. and the rest of the USA, which will not make life in politics and consequently the cooperation with its allies any easier for the Biden/Harris team.
But the EU also knows its own centrifugal and tensile forces: There is not just one EU interest, there are different national interests of the Member States with regard to all the policy areas mentioned. In addition, there are tasks such as migration policy, for example, which the EU must solve and which will tie up many resources.
New Room for Transatlantic Cooperation
In summary, the Biden Presidency gives hope for a shift towards cooperation with its European partner. Biden can be regarded as a true multilateralist and transatlanticist, who knows about the necessity and effectiveness of alliances. He is aware that in a complex and multipolar world, even the resources of the USA, still the most powerful and richest country on earth, are not sufficient for successful solo efforts. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Biden/Harris team needs a lot of political and material capital for its programme of internal healing of the USA. So there is plenty of room for politics, for the ability and necessity to compromise, for perseverance and cooperation. This is perhaps the message of the Biden victory for the EU: populism is not dead, but weakened. The space for politics in transatlantic relations and cooperation is back. Let us use it.
Thomas Ilka is the Regional Director of the European Dialogue Programme in Brussels