An article by Lea Schiller
Although they are looking to improve under Biden, relations between the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) as we have known them for the past couple of decades are over. For the EU, this situation is as much a hurdle as it is a chance.
It would be easy to assume that Biden, who has close ties to European leaders and has always been a transatlanticist (Karnitschnig, 2020), will reset the relationship between the EU and the US to what they were before Donald Trump took office. However, both EU diplomats and politicians in the US have argued that this is not going to be the case. For the EU, trying to hang onto its old relations with the US would not only mean treading on a path long abandoned, but missing a vital chance to establish a foreign policy free from American influence.
Throughout his entire four years in office, Trump has not only set a different tone towards Europe, but highlighted issues that had been plaguing the transatlantic relationship for years – one of the most important ones being the defence budgets of NATO members. Many members of the EU still have not fulfilled their pledge to raise their defence spending to 2% of their GDP – and Biden is unlikely to let this issue go (Karnitschnig, 2020). But even more important will be various issues connected to trade. Resolving conflicts around Europe’s planned digital tax and US subsidies for American aircraft maker Boeing might not be easy to resolve for Biden – Trump’s presidency has left distrust in the US’ trade deals in many Americans, especially Republicans (Lawrence & Murray, 2020). If the Democrats cannot gain a majority in Senate (two key Senate seats will be voted on in January), trade will be a hard-fought issue for years to come.
EU diplomats have also asserted the need for change. As Germany’s Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas said in front of the European Council in June: “Regardless of who wins the elections in November, […] we will have to think about how to better contain the conflicts in Europe’s vicinity, even without the US” (Maas, 2020). And just two weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron asserted that “We owe it to our citizens not to depend on others” (Walt 2020). For many EU diplomats, the Trump presidency has been an awakening (Walt, 2020). After verbal attacks, taxes on European goods and conflicts around NATO, the US is not the dependable partner it once was.
Both sides are preparing for lasting change in their relationship; but what can the EU gain from this? Simply put, it is more autonomy from the US and a chance to assert itself as a world power, independent from the tensions between the US and China for instance.
But in order to stand on its own, the EU will need to present a more united front to the world – in practice, this means more integration. The willingness to achieve this is there for some – earlier this year, Macron called for a clear and definitive move towards more integration (Wintour, 2020). But on the other side of the bloc, Hungary and Poland have been blocking the enactment of the EU’s new seven-year budget following plans to tie it to the rule of law (Hopkins, Shotter & Fleming, 2020). The push for more integration would undoubtedly be met with stern opposition. Whether this can be overcome will depend on upcoming national elections in other member states; most notably, Germany in 2021 and France in 2022.
The EU will need to perform a very delicate balancing act of holding onto its good relations with the US while simultaneously protecting its own interests and finding a way to detach itself from American control. This, although difficult to achieve, will also be a chance for the EU. By losing dependence on the US, the EU could pursue its own foreign policy goals, without having to adhere to demands from Washington. But to make this possible, deeper integration of the bloc is unavoidable – whether this will be possible, and how quickly it could be realised, remains to be seen.
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