Europe Expects Improved Transatlantic Relations, But Not a Return to Status Quo

European leaders and officials are not expecting transatlantic relations to snap back to the way things were before Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, but they do anticipate a narrowing of the gaps between America and Europe with Joe Biden in the White House.

“Relations will be less abrasive and we won’t have to weather a presidential commentary of needling all-caps tweets,” a senior German official told VOA. “But there’s also much that divides us. It isn’t just that America has changed — so, too, has Europe,” he added.

But the official, who advises German Chancellor Angela Merkel and is not authorized to brief the media, says there is an expectation of a much more multilateralist approach from Washington as well as a determination to shore up the rules-based international framework the United States long championed before Trump.

Reset 

Trump expressed a general distrust of multilateral organizations, seemingly returning to an era of powerful, independent nation states dealing with each other bilaterally rather than via international organizations. Biden is expected to reset Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and to reverse several of Trump’s signature moves.

More than a dozen European officials and analysts consulted by VOA say the biggest change they foresee is one of tone and style. Biden, they say, will be unlikely to approach diplomacy as a zero-sum game. They view Biden as the most pro-Atlanticist president since George HW Bush. But they caution policy towards China could divide the two continents and that Washington will likely stick to pressing NATO’s European members to boost their defense spending.

They predict, too, there will be further disputes over trade issues — including over subsidies for aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing. Both the U.S. and Europe have turned more protectionist.

Biden said in a town hall meeting last month, “America First has made America Alone,” but he pledged on the campaign trail to avoid any new trade agreements “until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities.”

That could be bad news for Britain, which is eager for a free-trade deal with the U.S. to help compensate for commercial losses from Brexit.

The Biden plan includes $300 billion in public spending to boost research and development in the United States, and an additional $400 billion in a “Buy American” government procurement program.

The Europeans, too, are turning more protectionist and as they struggle with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic they are resorting to ever larger state subsidies to business. Even before the pandemic EU leaders talked of boosting European industrial state champions to compete with American and Chinese firms.

David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, reckons there aren’t huge differences in the demands a Biden administration is likely to make of Europe from those made by the Trump administration. How the demands are couched will alter, with friendlier smiles. Gone will be the encouragement of the continent’s Euro-skeptic populists by the White House.

Biden is steeped in the values of traditional post-1945 American diplomacy and has already made clear that he will seek to repair frayed ties with European allies. He emphasized on the campaign trail that in office he will reinstate U.S. funding of the World Health Organization and rejoin the Paris climate change accord.

“President Biden will be much more calm. Much more reflective,” predicts former British diplomat Peter Ricketts. “He will be predictable,” he added in an interview with a British broadcaster.

But there are plenty of issues that will continue to divide the U.S. and Europe, says Hans Kundnani of Britain’s Chatham House. He suspects not everything will go back to the way it was before Trump — both America and Europe have changed in the past four years as structural shifts have emerged. He identifies the issue of China as a nagging thorn in the side of transatlantic relations.

NATO 

“The United States is increasingly under pressure to devote more resources to the Pacific. And so I think what that means is that for Europeans the debates that have taken place in the last few decades about greater burden sharing, in other words, about Europeans taking greater responsibility for their own security, are going to become much more acute,” Kundnani told VOA.

Even before Trump was elected there was a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Europe needs to take more responsibility for its own security. Biden, though, won’t engage in the episodic questioning of the very value of the transatlantic defense pact engaged in by President Trump in bruising encounters with European leaders and via brusque tweets. But European reluctance to help to rebalance NATO will likely remain a source of tension, predict officials and analysts.

Differences over how to handle China will likely go beyond greater European defense burden sharing, says Kundnani.

“I think the economic relationships that European countries have with China, and I am thinking here particularly of Germany, are also going to become a real issue in transatlantic relations,” he says. A Biden administration will “maintain pressure on the Europeans to basically decouple from the Chinese economy. And I think there’s going to be a lot of resistance to that in countries like Germany. I think continental Europe and the European Union is going to see that as a kind of a violation of ‘European sovereignty,’” he adds.

Not all officials and analysts VOA consulted agree, however. Europe’s attitude towards China is altering, says Christopher Skaluba of the Atlantic Council, a New York-based think tank. He says there’s been a shift in European thinking that’s quickened since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There is not quite as much resistance as you might expect and there’s a broad consensus in Europe on the need for something to be done,” says Skaluba, who had a lengthy tenure as the principal director for European & NATO Policy at the Pentagon.

He says European alarm about China has mounted thanks partly to Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The security risks of using Chinese technology in the development of the continent’s 5G wireless networks are now being recognized as well as the danger to democratic Western powers of a non-democratic rival developing a lead when it comes to technology as a whole.

Western diplomats privately predict that a Biden administration might not align closely with Europe on relations with Russia or Iran. On the latter Biden has signaled he wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal that Trump walked away from, if Tehran comes back into compliance. But some Western diplomats doubt the Iran deal can be restructured in the way that will satisfy Washington or a Republican-controlled Senate.

How to curb the Kremlin’s expansionist foreign policy may prove especially challenging, say analysts and diplomats, and not just because of a rift between Washington and Europe, but also because of sharp differences between Central and Western Europeans.

“There’s a temptation to think of Europe as being a unified bloc, but it’s actually not,” says Chatham House’s Kundnani. Transatlantic disputes are almost always intra European disputes, he says. And that’s reflected when it comes to what strategies to adopt towards Putin with Central Europeans favoring a tougher approach than their counterparts in the West, he says.

The construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany will remain likely a source of irritation not only when it comes to transatlantic relations, but in relations between Central Europeans and Germany.

“Russia is also potentially for the West a problem. America is going to need European support, but the Europeans are also going to need assistance from the Americans, particularly the Central Europeans, who are very anxious about Russia,” says Kundnani.

Recently, Central Europeans were appalled to hear Thierry Breton, one of France’s EU commissioners, say, “Belarus is not Europe,” a statement they took as reflecting a lack of Western European urgency over the months-long confrontation between the Moscow-backed Belarusian leader and pro-democracy campaigners.

Likewise, they’re wary of increasing talk from Brussels about ‘European sovereignty,’ which often seems to be defined as being “Not America.” They embraced the EU not to distance themselves from Washington but from Moscow.

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