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EU pins hopes on a Biden victory

November 1, 2020

US President Donald Trump has stretched and strained relations with many of the country's long-standing allies in Europe. Many EU politicians are hoping that a win for Joe Biden could turn things around.

Ursula von der Leyern and Donald Trump sit in chairs at the World Economic Forum
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/S. Craighead/White House

The trans-Atlantic relationship has taken a beating over the four years of a Trump presidency. But Janis Emmanouilidis believes there is still hope for the partnership — if the Democratic candidate Joe Biden were to win the US presidential election on Tuesday.

"No one is naive, thinking that we will return to some form of status quo ante. You will not be able to return time to the good old days. So there will still be problems in the trans-Atlantic relations. But with respect to a Biden presidency, there are hopes that the situation could substantially improve," said Emmanouilidis, the director of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank.

Read more: US election: Most Europeans would vote for Joe Biden

Emmanouilidis fears the EU-US relationship will deteriorate even further should Biden prove unable to oust Donald Trump from the White House.

"It is likely that he [Trump] will be putting more pressure on Europe in his second term than he has done in the first term. He's also identified Europe as a bigger evil than other global players," he told DW.

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US-EU cooperation needed

Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the European Parliament with the European Green Party and a foreign policy expert, also doesn't think much of Trump's geopolitical statements. "When we hear that President Trump says the European Union is a foe, that doesn't make an argument from Washington stronger in the European public discourse," he said.

Nevertheless, Bütikofer thinks there are still many politicians in Washington and in the US Congress — including Republicans — who are aware that cooperation with Europe is needed to deal with China, Russia and other global players.

Read more: Russia, Iran meddling with US elections: 'Hacking of our hearts and minds'

A President Biden might not do everything differently from Trump, but it's reasonable to assume that he would support traditional American allies, listen to them and search for common ground, Bütikofer said.

"Regardless of who wins in November," he said, "we should invest in cooperating, and we have made some headway on certain counts, for instance, when we look at the WTO [World Trade Organization] and the need to reform the rules that govern the WTO. I think we we've seen that we sing from the same hymnbook."

EU and other heads of government stand around a table where Donald Trump is seated
Trump has rubbed many European leaders the wrong way, such as during the 2018 G-7 meeting in CanadaImage: Reuters/Prime Minister's Office/A. Scotti

A drop in trans-Atlantic trust

A study conducted this summer by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a foreign policy think tank in Brussels, showed that Europeans have lost trust in the United States, an ally they had long valued and worked with closely. The "domestic chaos" in the US related to the Trump administration's management of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed significantly to negative perceptions in Europe. 

Researchers at the European Council believe that as president, Biden would approach Europeans anew. They also think the US would rejoin the 2015 Paris climate change agreement and the World Health Organization, as well as strengthen NATO — even if Democrats and Republicans alike would continue to press for European nations to contribute more to the military alliance's budget.

Read more: How coronavirus has changed the face of US democracy

Many of Trump's predecessors, including President Barack Obama, had already been pushing for increased military spending. If Trump were to be reelected, NATO would need to prepare for hard times ahead, Trump's ousted national security adviser John Bolton has predicted. According to Bolton, Trump has threatened to pull the US out of NATO, which could mean the end of the alliance.

Joe Biden with Donald Tusk in 2015
Past EU leaders — including former European Council President Donald Tusk (right) — got along with BidenImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Biden also has demands of Europe

But NATO also faces criticism within Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron once said the alliance was going through "brain death," and has said more "European sovereignty" is needed.

Macron is not alone: Other EU government heads also see — albeit to varying degrees — the potential for the EU to play a greater geostrategic role in contrast to the US under Trump.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, wants first and foremost to see a return to a rule-based system of order. "The truth is also that the need to revitalize and reform the multilateral system has never been so urgent," she said in her September speech to the European Parliament. "Our global system has grown into a creeping paralysis. Major powers are either pulling out of institutions or taking them hostage for their own interests."

Many in Brussels hope that a Biden presidency could help bring about this change, but Emmanouilidis is wary of illusions. He believes the rather gentle treatment Europe has given China so far would also not particularly please a Democratic president.

"One challenge could, for example, be that the new Biden administration says: 'We're ready to cooperate when it comes to multilateral issues, we're ready to cooperate on climate, we're ready to cooperate on the WTO. But we want you in exchange to be tough, for example, on China,'" he said. 

The US under Biden could continue to demand that Europe uphold sanctions against Chinese technology company Huawei without exceptions, and that it react to military provocations in the South China Sea.

EU united by trade issues

Regardless of who wins the US election on Tuesday, European nations will immediately want to discuss trade relations. Trump's threat to raise massive tariffs on cars and other EU imported goods continues to hang heavy in the air; a sort of truce negotiated in July 2018 by then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker failed to solve the underlying conflict.

At the time, Trump surprisingly called the EU the biggest trade partner of the US. Yet this topic has been absent from both the Trump and Biden campaigns.

The EU's new trade commissioner, Valdis Dombrovskis, believes differences must be set aside. "This is a time for keeping our friends close and remembering the alliances that really count. There are still some ongoing disputes between the EU and US, and in my view, we are very well advised to fix these quickly," he said in a September speech at a business event.

Donald Trump puckers up as if to kiss Angela Merkel on the cheek
Despite this cheeky greeting in 2019, Trump and Merkel have a frosty relationshipImage: picture-alliance/dpa/abaca/P. Aventurier

Observers believe most European government leaders would get along better with Biden, since he is more liberal-leaning and less rhetorically combative. The relationship between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular, has been marked by a total absence of chemistry, Emmanouilidis said. Poland and other Eastern European nations, especially those with populist leaders, have enjoyed better relations with the president.

Read more: Poland's ex-foreign minister: Trump was 'right on some issues'

Nevertheless, Emmanouilidis believes the EU will remain united in defending its interests against the US, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. "When it comes to the actual key issues, when it becomes really difficult, we've seen that the EU 27 [member states] up to now has been united, even though some member states might have, or tried to have, a more preferential relationship with the Trump administration," he said.

This article has been adapted from the German original.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union