Transatlantic relations

Biden’s win will bring a change in tone but not in substance for EU-US ties

Many European leaders have reacted warmly to the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency. With the Trump years taking a toll on transatlantic relations, analysts say Europeans will have to come up with clear proposals for what they want out of cooperation with the United States.
Many European leaders have reacted warmly to the election of Joe Biden to the US presidency. With the Trump years taking a toll on transatlantic relations, analysts say Europeans will have to come up with clear proposals for what they want out of cooperation with the United States. REUTERS - Kevin Lamarque

Reactions from France and other European countries to Joe Biden’s election to the United States presidency suggest the tone of transatlantic relations will improve when Donald Trump leaves office. However, observers say the last four years have put the spotlight on longer-term divisions which Europeans will need to be creative to resolve.

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French President Emmanuel Macron joined other European leaders in reacting warmly to the confirmation on Saturday that Joe Biden had won White House. 

“The Americans have chosen their President. Congratulations Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” Macron tweeted in English. “We have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges. Let's work together!”

That and other messages across the continent suggest the leaders of the European Union expect a smoother diplomatic relationship with the United States under Joe Biden than under Donald Trump. 

“We will see a healthier relationship very quickly,” says Martin Quencez, deputy director of the Paris office the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank on transatlantic relations. “The tricky part will be to keep this positive momentum.”

It will not be long before the US and EU get into some of the divergences that the Trump years highlighted, namely cooperation in the Nato military alliance, the EU’s role in US-China competition and relations on digital and trade issues. 

“I don’t think there’s any idea we could go back to what it was before Trump,” Quencez says, “but rather to learn from what didn’t work in the last four years and change, if possible, the course of the discussion.”

Europe must come up with proposals

Europeans are likely to find the new US administration reaffirming its role and the overall cohesion of the Nato military alliance.  

“Nato will probably be the organisation where the US administration will show right away in 2021 that it is serious about its engagement in European security,” Quencez says. “It was a platform that was so bruised by the four years of the Trump administration.” 

From there, observers say the EU will have to show proof of ingenuity in its partnership with the US. 

“The challenge for the Europeans is to not just to be groupies or spectators but to come forward with ideas: to say, if you come back to the Paris agreement, this is what we can do together,” Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister, told RFI. 

“The GAFA have even more support among Democrats than Republicans,” Védrine noted in reference to the web giants Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, which the EU is seeking to regulate. “Europe has to be dynamic as it rebuilds its relations with the United States.” 

Europe eyes up US-China rivalry

One area where the transatlantic partners may be able to cooperate is in their position on China. Washington under Trump was so keen on defining Beijing as its primary competitor that it opened diplomatic opportunities for Europe. 

“There’s been some convergence of perspective on the Chinese challenge, which the Covid crisis has probably increased,” Quencez says. “For the US administration, China will remain the top strategic priority, and Europeans will very quickly have to offer their vision of this competition and what they can provide in it.” 

Védrine said the US preoccupation with an influence-expanding Beijing will remain with Biden. 

“China remains the primary challenge” for the US, Védrine told RFI.  “The Americans will not accept losing their position as the first world power and will want to get their allies behind them.” 

A relief and a challenge for France

Positioning Europe in Sino-US competition speaks to France’s own challenges and ambitions in the years ahead, as the Macron administration emphasised well before a Biden victory was clear.

“Whatever the result of the US election, the European Union must continue to reinforce its economic, political and technological sovereignty to compete with the United States and China,” French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Wednesday as the US election results showed no clear winner. 

“This is what we have been doing with President Emmanuel Macron since 2017.” 

Biden’s win, while welcomed with promises of opportunity, also presents France with a challenge in terms of winning over its European partners to its own vision for the EU.

“For France, the idea is to find the right balance between having a much more positive conversation with the US administration on climate, multilateralism and defence cooperation, and at the same time to continue to push for European sovereignty and strategic autonomy,” Quencez says.

“This is the tricky part for Paris, to tell European partners that it will be easier to work with Biden...than Trump, but that this should not change the angle of the European project – which is to develop the means to compete in this great power competition.”

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