What Biden means for Europe
On key issues from climate change to China, how the next US president will revamp transatlantic ties.
BERLIN — It’s morning again in Europe.
After four long years of persistent haranguing, criticism and outright hostility, Europe can breathe easy; it’s free at last of Donald Trump.
Trump’s defeat in the U.S. election will be celebrated across the Continent where his presidency caused widespread angst and anger. Many feared a second Trump term would trigger the collapse of the transatlantic relationship, the anchor of European prosperity and stability since World War II.
In Joe Biden, a lifelong transatlanticist with strong links to many of Europe’s most important leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Europe has the next best thing to one of its own in the White House.
Overnight, the transatlantic tone will shift from one of hostility to one of mutual respect. After the trauma of the Trump years, many European decision-makers will see the Biden presidency as a golden opportunity not just to repair the transatlantic alliance but to renew and redefine it for the coming decades. That assumption may be too optimistic. Even if it isn’t, it raises a more basic question: Will Europe seize the chance to remake the relationship?
In a world struggling to cope with a raging pandemic, potential environmental catastrophe and the spread of authoritarianism, it might be crazy not to.
Not that Biden would be an easy partner. Whatever his sympathies for Europe, Biden, like Barack Obama before him, will make it clear that the Europeans need to stop talking and start doing if they want an equal partnership with the U.S. and help avoid a return to Trumpism four years from now.
Here’s what a Biden reset with Europe might look like across a range of issues.
Trump declared Europe the U.S.’s “foe” on trade and to prove his point went so far as to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum as well as on European wines. While that tone will get friendlier, the Biden administration is unlikely to return to the status quo ante overnight. That’s because the Democrats were blindsided by the potency of the free trade issue in 2016. Up until Trump highjacked the party’s agenda, the Republicans had been rabid free traders. As the world became ever more globalized, the Democrats, traditionally the party of American labor, jumped on that bandwagon. Until they lost in 2016, amid taunts from Trump that they were “globalist elites.”
One of Trump’s legacies is that he made trade a bread-and-butter issue in American politics again. That means that while it might be easier to seal a trade arrangement with the Biden administration, it won’t be an easy negotiation, especially considering that the U.S. trade deficit with Europe has ballooned to over $170 billion.
When it comes to sticky issues like Europe’s push for a digital tax on tech giants and the long-running dispute over subsidies for Airbus and Boeing, there are no easy fixes.
That said, Biden could open the door to renewing a transatlantic free trade agreement. The last push, under Obama, died near the finish line amid a backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. But many European leaders are interested in giving it another go, especially at a time when their economies are reeling from the pandemic.
Bottom line: Trade is an area that could see deepening transatlantic cooperation, but it’s also full of pitfalls.
If there’s a feel-good transatlantic issue waiting in the wings, it’s the environment. Biden’s victory came too late to stop the U.S. from leaving the Paris climate deal, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t reenter it as soon as he takes office. And he will. For Europe, doing so will be a crucial goodwill gesture to show that the U.S. is serious again about helping to combat climate change. It’s an issue that Biden has made clear he takes seriously, going as far as to signal during the campaign that he sees the U.S. phasing out its reliance on oil and gas over the long term.
Bottom line: Biden and Europe see eye-to-eye on climate policy. Look for a quick return of the U.S. to Paris accord and an immediate improvement in the transatlantic mood music.
American-Chinese relations are on the rocks, a state of affairs unlikely to change under Biden. In fact, the assessment that China poses a long-term threat to U.S. interests in the world is one of the few issues that Democrats and Republicans agree on these days. Europe isn’t there yet. And may never arrive. Though the European Commission has joined Washington in declaring China a “systemic rival,” not every European capital shares that view. The biggest obstacle is Germany, a country with Europe’s strongest trade tries to China. Biden will push Berlin and Europe’s other foot-draggers to join a U.S.-led coalition of democracies to try to halt China’s growing influence on the international scene. The big ask: stop installing Huawei’s 5G gear, the next-generation telecommunications standard now rolling out across the globe, which the U.S. argues creates the foundation for an information superhighway from the Continent to Chinese intelligence.
Ultimately, however, the question is a more fundamental one: Will Europe stand by the U.S. in trying to keep Chinese influence in check or not?
Bottom line: In the face of growing public unease over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong and its use of concentration camps to intimidate its Muslim population, Biden’s Washington is likely to prevail.
Two percent still means 2 percent. The pledge NATO countries made in 2014 to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense will remain on the agenda under Biden — even if he’s bound to be less nasty than Trump was about reminding Europeans that many countries (chiefly Germany) haven’t been pulling their weight.
Biden will also make clear that with the U.S. shifting its attention to China, Europe is going to have to lead the effort on the Continent to counter Russian and Chinese attempts to establish a foothold. While Biden has been vocal in stressing the necessity of confronting Russian aggression, he sees China as the long-term threat.
Bottom line: While both France and Germany would be expected to play a central role, it’s far from clear if they’re up for it.
Whatever one thinks of Trump’s foreign policy, it’s difficult to argue that he didn’t make progress in the Middle East in easing tensions between Israel and some of its neighbors. That could make it more difficult for Biden to flip a switch to reverse Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal, especially if doing so threatened the recent improvement. Another obstacle is Iran’s own recent behavior. Iran’s leadership has returned to enriching uranium well beyond allowed limits and has become increasingly belligerent towards its own neighbors. Within Iran, the Islamist government has been unrelenting in quashing dissents, including with the recent execution of star wrestler Navid Afkari. While the EU, which regards the deal as one of its great diplomatic achievements, has clung to the pact and is anticipating a U.S. return under Biden, it could be a tough sell in the U.S., even among Democrats.
Bottom line: Biden will probably attempt some form of rapprochement with Iran, but a full return to the nuclear deal is unlikely. At the very least, Europe is likely to win some relief from the threat of U.S. sanctions on its companies and individuals for doing business with Iran.