As a new president takes over the White House, observers in the EU are speculating about what it means for trans-Atlantic relations, which suffered considerable setbacks during the Trump era.
Europeans have high hopes for improved relations under the incoming US president but what role must they now play?
There is no doubt that EU's expectations for incoming US president Joe Biden are enormous. The bloc is torn between the hope that the trans-Atlantic relationship will be restored and relations with the US will "normalize" and a growing realization of the obstacles that stand in their way. French Minister for Europe Clement Beaune is certain that there will not be a sea change given the divided country that the new administration inherits. "Europe should take more responsibility," said Beaune, who remains a champion of the "strategic autonomy" concept but realizes there must be more cooperation. "Europe should define its interests, its values itself. Certainly not against the US, we should work together."
"The partnership should have a fresh start," he insisted, expressing hope that it would improve particularly with regard to environment policy, security and trade.
Beaune is a close ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, who by promoting the concept of "strategic autonomy," has distanced Paris from Berlin and Warsaw with regard to foreign policy. While Beaune did not think the EU should neglect its partnership with the US and NATO, he said it was imperative to think about the future: "The US will continue to ask us to be more autonomous. They will ask us to take more responsibility and to spend more for defense." He also defended the much-criticized EU-China investment deal, which was recently agreed but still needs to be approved. "It would be strange to think that as the EU we have no right to sign agreements," he said. "We should be clear on what we want and take responsibility on all aspects."
In keeping with national tradition, the French government seems to want to maintain a certain skepticism towards the trans-Atlantic relationship and continue to champion more autonomy for Europe.
For her part, Jana Puglierin, the head of the Berlin office of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Europeans in Washington should make an immediate clean break with the policies of the outgoing administration. "It has been a tough four years but we're now on the same wave again and we welcome the new president with open arms." She said that a clear signal should be sent to Biden: "We are not vassals and we cannot turn back the clock but we should show this government that the EU is interested in multilateralism and wants to take on more tasks."
Biden would have so many issues to address, she said, that he would surely welcome the EU becoming a little more autonomous and addressing issues such as Belarus and its vicinity: "We should be part of the solution and not part of the problem." Puglierin also supported the idea of strategic autonomy because it would allow Europeans to be better partners. "Paris is worried that Europe's ambitions will slumber again. Berlin is worried that Biden only scraped by and that the US will not be there forever." So, for her, it made sense that the EU should become stronger and more active, in order to maintain the US as a partner.
Puglierin recommended that after Biden's inauguration, the EU should initially concentrate on "light subjects" which would achieve quick results, such as climate change, negotiations with Iran and the role of NATO. "There's a NATO summit in early summer where a gear change can be signalized and a new strategic concept." Difficult subjects such as trade policy would be tougher and the approach should be gradual. She was critical of the way the EU-China deal had been rushed through. "We're going to have to iron out the bad start with regard to China policy."
Reinhard Bütikofer, the co-chair of the European Green Party, agreed that the timing of the agreement was not ideal: "We could have gotten off to a better start," he said, while pointing out that the EU did not need to ask the US for permission. Nonetheless, he said there should be cooperation on both sides of this issue and many others and it did not make sense for the EU to go it alone with regard to China. Since the deal still needed to be approved, he said that there was still time for negotiations and regretted that the EU had not sent a clear signal to Washington, Beijing and the rest of the world. "There is a new game on and the trans-Atlantic partnership is going to be invigorated." Bütikofer cited the climate crisis as the top priority, followed by trade and security policy: "We need to walk and chew gum at the same time."
For Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, the Biden era begins with considerable hope: "It ends the disdain that Trump held for Europe," pointing out that the new president understands the Continent and has a particularly close relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She said that the EU would probably have to step up in terms of security and defense policy and this might offer new opportunities for negotiations on keeping nuclear arms under control. Her proposal is that the trans-Atlantic relationship should be expanded to enable closer cooperation with other democracies from Canada to Japan, insisting, for instance, that it should be possible to agree on common security, defense and trade strategies with regard to China, India and Latin America. "The EU might balk at that," she admitted, but insisted that if Brussels and Washington were to revive trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the West could do more to define common norms and values as well as rules for transparency and investment.
Furthermore, she warned that it would only be possible to overcome the Trump nightmare if there was a real attempt to understand what motivated the alternative right and other populist movements. She said it was important to look at ways to regulate social media sites, adding that authoritarian regimes trying to undermine democracies had helped fuel anti-government movements through financial backing and nefarious cyber activity.
"The Trump administration showed the vulnerability of democratic institutions and also the strength of them. But his legacy is very much an open question."