Europe seeks to reboot transatlantic partnership amid thorny issue of trade

US and European Union flags outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.
US and European Union flags outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. REUTERS - Francois Lenoir

The frayed relationship between Europe and the United States is on an expected path to repair as President Joe Biden paves the way for renewed cooperation on climate change, security, defence and more – however the issue of trade may prove tricky.


With the transatlantic partnership dropping to unprecedented lows during four years of Donald Trump, moves are afoot in both Brussels and Washington to reshape and renew areas of common policy.

This means plenty of teamwork – or multilateralism – and adhering to international rules and institutions.

“Europe is definitely not waiting for the United States to make the first move,” says Celia Belin, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institute, a think tank based in Washington DC. 

It’s for this reason that Brussels laid out its agenda for transatlantic cooperation – even before Trump left office.

“Europeans know that if they want to push international agreements or international initiatives, it has to come to come from them,” Belin adds. 

Indeed, Europe is looking forward to turning the page on the unabated US nationalism and hostile foreign policy that saw Trump abandon the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as slap tariffs on German steel imports and French wine.

Restoring international order

Described as the most “pro-Atlanticist” president since George HW Bush, Joe Biden is hastily winding back the clock on Trump’s America-first approach by returning to the table with allies and rejoining international treaties and organisations, including the Paris accord and the WHO. 

So far, though, he’s made no promises on ending tariffs on EU products. 

Trade will prove a thornier subject, warns Belin, with Biden’s administration remaining careful to protect America’s middle class.

“It would be a mistake for Biden to simply undo the Trump administration like Trump did with the Obama administration,” she explains. “Biden recognises the Trump administration had a point in tackling unfair trade practices.” 

Existing tariffs on EU goods also offer Biden some leverage in future trade talks.

Familiar faces

One resounding question is whether Trump’s shake-up of US foreign policy will have a lasting impact, or whether the past four years are more of an anomaly that can be corrected. The answer may be both. 

Many of Biden’s top advisers are familiar faces – experts in transatlantic affairs who served in the Obama administration. These include his picks for senior jobs in the State Department and National Security Council, whose remit is being expanded to focus more on global health, human rights and democracy.

Analysts say that, going forward, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic consider a solid EU-US partnership to be crucial in re-establishing order on the world stage and drowning out the voices of the populist leaders driving isolationist national agendas.

Included in that strategy is Biden’s push to create a D10 global summit of democracies committed to combating authoritarian states. 

Beyond that, bridging the transatlantic rift means revamping the NATO defence alliance and revisiting outdated rules governing the World Trade Organisation. It will also involve forming a common strategy toward China and Russia, and closer collaboration on dealing with the global Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Europeans are less naive than before, and they're also more ready to defend their own interests,” says Belin, adding that much has changed in the four years of Donald Trump.

“The EU now perceives itself as a strategic actor, a geopolitical actor and a very strong geo-economic actor in which the US can find a partner.”

Interview: Celia Belin, Brookings Institute
US-EU foreign policy expert Celia Belin, of the Brookings Institute think tank based in Washington DC.
US-EU foreign policy expert Celia Belin, of the Brookings Institute think tank based in Washington DC. © Yann Bourdelas / RFI

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