The European Union Confronted with Biden’s Challenge: What Transatlantic New Deal?

Mario Telò
Professor at LUISS and President Emeritus of the Institut d’Etudes Européennes of the Université Libre de Bruxelles

The great presidential turning point and its limits

The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is excellent news for the whole world and, in particular, for the Europeans, in terms of both possible political convergences and common values: ....

an approach to the fight against COVID-19 based on science, environmental protection and the fight against climate change, the defense of freedoms and human rights as well as multilateralism are returning to the center of US politics, whereas the populist wave,  including anti-EU tendencies, will lose an essential reference, a strategic framework. The historic significance of this progressive message coming from the only remaining superpower, should not be underestimated. The list of opportunities open for the search for convergences with the EU is large: the reintegration of the Treaty of Paris (COP 21); the likely reopening of negotiations with Iran; a more constructive approach to international organizations, from the United Nations to the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

But we are also aware that these symbolic messages and concrete factors of discontinuity will be conditioned by a high rate of continuity, in particular for three reasons:

a) Joe Biden knows that his absolute record of 81 million votes is almost balanced by the 74 million obtained by Donald Trump: despite the scandals, the errors, the blunders, his arrogance, the latter mobilized millions of voters more than in 2016. Populist nationalism is still strong everywhere in the West and the wave is not exhausted, although in Europe the national populists will have to confide in their local roots. No one knows what the “unpredictable” Donald Trump will be doing with this force in the years to come. That balance of forces will surely condition Joe Biden’s policy as well as Western democracies for several years.

b) The complicity of many Republican officials in Trump’s refusal to recognize the election results, their resilient loyalty to the unprecedented President behavior, despite the discredit that the accusation of fraud and the 6th January tragedy of Capitol Hill, bring upon the American democracy at the global level, confirms that Donald Trump has “trumpified” the majority of the Republican Party, which is accompanied by the change of the Supreme Court in a conservative sense (6-3) for the next decades. Forced to seek to compose a difficult domestic bipartisan consensus, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will inevitably have limited margins in their search for convergences with allies and external partners. Internal factors will weigh also heavily on foreign policy and according to the Financial Times he will be obliged to often choose between internal unity and international change.

c) A final, essential factor should convince Europeans not to delude themselves and to share a realistic analysis of the geopolitical framework in which Biden / Harris’ success lies. The decline in the international role of the United States, which is unwilling and unable to assume hegemonic responsibilities, in the constructive sense of the concept, that it assumed during the ‘Thirty Glorious Years’ after WW2, is a structural, long-term phenomenon that will inevitably continue during Joe Biden’s presidency. According to the most prestigious representatives of political science, including the Americans (R.O. Keohane, J. Ikenberry…), this decline began in 1971 with Nixon’s decision to put an end to the Bretton Woods international monetary system, based on the dollar; it continued during the presidencies of Reagan and G.W. Bush with their more and more marked distancing vis-à-vis the multilateral organizations, and was exacerbated by D. Trump’s policy of “America first”. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama have been able to reverse this historical trend.

In a world that has become multipolar, the divergence of multiple economic, commercial and strategic interests between the two transatlantic allies is accompanied by divergences in values (death penalty, welfare state and balance between multilateralism and sovereignty), which have led, for example, the most important living European philosopher, J. Habermas, already in 2004, to write a famous book with the title Der gespaltene Westen, “The divided West”. To prevent a crisis of too high expectations, the alliance should therefore have to adapt through an effort of creativity, reconciling the democratic America with the new status acquired by the EU, which has shown its historical capacity to resist, apart from Brexit, the disintegrating pressure of the Trump presidency.

The “Strategic autonomy” of the EU in the new geopolitical framework

The enthusiasm declared by EU and national leaders after the election of Joe Biden is well justified; hope for future cooperation is associated with their relief at the end of four years of uncertainties, trade wars, genuine humiliations reiterated at NATO and G7 meetings, as well as political differences over fundamental issues such as the environment, trade, and how to manage the pandemic, security, multilateral organizations, etc.

As soon as possible, the EU should schedule a European Council devoted to foreign policy. It should have been done in advance. It is not too late, however, and the initiative, according to the treaty, may come from the High Representative for the CFSP who is most sensitive to the question of the balance to be struck between EU’s Strategic autonomy and transatlantic relations. The EU has an interest in avoiding two mistakes: waiting for the American initiative and positioning itself “in a reaction mood”; or underestimating the opportunity that presents itself. The EU should put forward its concrete proposals for a “New Transatlantic Deal”, but, at the same time, should situate its proposals within the framework of a new Global strategy for multilateralism which could deepen and update the 2016 Mogherini Document. Should it wait passively for the proposals coming from Joe Biden and the new Secretary of State, Mr Blinken, the EU would de facto end up returning to the “junior partner” status it had within NATO, which European national leaders practiced, with the partial exception of De Gaulle and Willy Brandt during the decades following the world war. The EU is a great economic, commercial and, in nuce, political power: it should speak, as Josep Borrell points out, its distinctive language as a power, even at the transatlantic level.

A New Deal for Transatlantic Relations would feature three major chapters:

a) The deepening of EU-US cooperation in the fields of research and the fight against the pandemic, for a generalized vaccination and, as of now, for an ambitious, unprecedented plan for post-COVID economic recovery, would not only be immediately useful to citizens on both sides of the Atlantic, but would be a benchmark model and an aid to the whole world, as demanded  by the Secretary of the United Nations, A. Guterres, who rightly and dramatically warned against the great risk of a deep and long-lasting global crisis and a divide between developed and developing countries. The EU can be more assertive in defending its points of view, given the courageous decisions of the European Council of 21 July 2020, which should ultimately be ratified by national parliaments; with the Recovery Plan, the EU is at the global forefront of the recovery, and has its cards to play in a world where the United States and China have, for different reasons, seriously bogged down their soft power.

b) In the field of security, it is obvious that NATO, declared ‘obsolete’ by Trump and ‘brain dead’ by E. Macron, is asking itself the question of how to redefine its identity, stuck after the Cold War and the failures in Afghanistan and Libya. The 2010 document (“NATO Strategic Concept”) is obviously outdated, as the Atlanticist professor of the J. Hopkins University, D. Hamilton, also admits. Despite the small steps taken towards European defense (2018, PESCO), the EU will need the additional nuclear security guarantee offered by NATO (Art. 5) at least for the next two decades: it must therefore agree to the increase of its contribution requested by the USA (up to 2% of national GDP for defense budgets), but in exchange for a new strategic concept as suitable to a “partnership of equals” (according to an expression of J F. Kennedy, quoted by W. Brandt but remained for 70 years at a wishful-thinking level).

It is within this new framework that strategic concepts, with very practical consequences, can be discussed together and updated, such as “cooperative security”, “crisis management”, “out of area intervention”. As for the inevitable pressures to build, by a “Summit of democracies”, a bloc of anti-totalitarian democracies, namely an organic link between NATO and the Indo-Pacific Council, several observers see in it the risk of limiting the EU’s “strategic autonomy” in a multipolar world, where international organizations, especially the UN, must maintain and strengthen their central role. It is clear that the EU is not interested in a close alliance of democracies against x or y, especially if the latter were to reinforce the tendencies towards a new Cold War: we should not risk pushing, for example, China and Russia towards a strengthened military alliance, with disastrous consequences like the blockade of the UN, of the multilateral organizations and also regional crises. That’s why the Franco-German 2020 proposal for “An alliance for multilateralism” still looks as more consistent with the EU interests and values.

c) Putting an end to trade wars will be the first step in the field of transatlantic economic cooperation. In the recent past, trade and investment negotiations between the EU and the United States (TTIP, 2013-2016), despite the sophisticated level of the standards discussed, have not succeeded for profound reasons which subsequently worsened: protectionist pressures within both Europe and the United States, channeled not only by right-wing and far-right populists, but also by part of the radical left, well represented in the United States within the Democratic Party. These domestic constraints explain, at least to some extent, the new Treasury Secretary Yellen’ recent commitment to stop any trade negotiation for two years. The EU, rather than taking up and reviving the TTIP as it was left in 2016, should support limited transatlantic agreements (automotive, digital, etc.), in addition to a joint initiative within the WTO on the multiple points where the United States and Europe have common interests, especially in the face of a China which is both a partner and a competitor: the protection of intellectual property, against the transfer of technologies, the limits to state aid and subsidies-notification. Of course, with two preconditions for the EU: that the EU should absolutely not drop its autonomous multiple interregional negotiations, in particular its ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, important for its chapters on access to the market and “sustainable development” and for the Asia-Pacific strategy of a global power like Europe. Secondly, the fundamental mechanism of the WTO appellate body should be quickly restored by the return of the US to a constructive approach.

These thoughts do not at all diminish our satisfaction for the most beautiful news of the horrible 2020: the defeat of D. Trump in the presidential elections in the United States. But if Europe forgets these elements of analysis and does not move forward rapidly with its proposals for a Transatlantic New Deal, it will risk either a future crisis in transatlantic relations, due to naive and exaggerated expectations, or missing a historical opportunity.

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