Despite the gloom of impending winter and the reality of the second lockdown in a year in many parts of Europe, conversations between colleagues and friends in the past week have often begun with reflections on how much spirits have been lifted by the news of the Biden-Harris electoral victory in the United States. The transatlantic relationship is like no other in its capacity to affect European moods in this way.
Europeans always knew the risks of a Biden victory. It is like when a former lover walks back in and promises that they have changed – Europe wants to believe so much that everything will be great again that, in the excitement of having more common ground with the US, it could be swept away by the assumption that the country will be reliable on everything.
Even European policy elites who are urging caution largely analyse the challenges that could prevent the Biden administration from becoming the transatlantic protector they miss so much – challenges such as the Democrats’ lack of a majority in the Senate and the administration’s need to focus on domestic priorities. In doing so, they inadvertently rule out the possibility that Europe will have any agency in the relationship, be it in the form of European strategic autonomy, sovereignty, or just simple self-respect.
To try to ensure that this possibility does not just remain a pipe dream, we should now focus on what is within our gift to create a transatlantic relationship that works for both sides, and on what we have learned about ourselves in the past few years. This could be the moment to build a more balanced relationship, with Europeans showing the US where we need it to engage, and how – rather than simply waiting for cues from Washington.
The European Union knows a thing or two about dealing with deeply divided societies, states with very different perspectives on problems, and large minorities of voters who do not feel that they chose the current political project. Europe’s proposal to a domestically preoccupied US should be that, though these are considerations that one must take into account in building a policy agenda, they need not be constraints on strong international engagement. Public opinion surveys the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted across nine member states in spring 2020 show that, despite such divisions, 63 per cent of Europeans agreed that the covid-19 crisis underlined the need for more international cooperation. Clearly, something in the European argument is working.
These same surveys also reveal the areas in which the EU needs to engage in international cooperation if it is to demonstrate its value to European citizens: building European economic sovereignty, leading on global health, tackling climate change, and shaping the digital future. There are several ways in which the EU could use the transatlantic relationship to do so.
On geo-economics, Europe should use the Biden presidency as an opportunity to rebuild as close a transatlantic relationship as possible. The EU should try to advance a positive trade agenda by, for example, setting transatlantic standards. And the bloc should demonstrate to the US that a multilateral approach comes with greater benefits than a unilateral one. But even a Biden administration will use strategic tools other than multilateral cooperation when it suits its interests. Those tools that Trump took up will look tempting to Biden in relation to China and trade in general, and could cause significant collateral damage to the EU. Europe needs to invest in its economic sovereignty and build strong defensive instruments – to shield itself from potential damage, and to incentivise a form of transatlantic cooperation in which the US takes European interests into account.
Health cooperation to revive multilateralism between the EU and the US will be high on the agenda come January 2021. Though president-elect Joe Biden has already pledged to rejoin the World Health Organisation (WHO), it seems likely that the EU and the US will still be grappling with the management of the pandemic, and will have other converging agendas on global health. In rejuvenating the G7 and the G20 – both of which will be presided over by European countries in 2021 – the transatlantic partners could present a united front in convening global initiatives similar to the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator. They could also work on unblocking multilateral institutions – especially the WHO – and reforming the global system for responding to health emergencies.
The Biden administration promises to immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement and work towards COP26 in Glasgow next year. This is great news for the global effort to tackle climate change, but the EU should push Biden to go further, and to do the legwork in Congress and the Senate to make this re-entry into the process binding beyond the lifetime of his administration. When major powers move in and out of climate commitments, this creates uncertainty for businesses and markets that is damaging not only to the Paris Agreement but also to the idea of international agreements more broadly. In the same way that EU leaders must now invest politically to create an ambitious implementation package for the European Green Deal, Biden’s team must engage in similar efforts to fulfil its climate commitments – and thereby restore confidence in the process.
On the tech agenda, there are significant differences of opinion between the EU and the US that will not disappear with the advent of the Biden administration – most notably, with regard to European ambitions for digital autonomy. This includes the protection of European firms from foreign acquisition – perhaps even that by US companies – and the establishment of standards on surveillance and data privacy that clash with the business models of big US tech companies. However, there is an alignment of interests and values on both sides on the Atlantic in countering China’s technological power. Here, European countries, the US, and other democratic states should work together on export controls, such as those for semiconductor manufacturing equipment – an area in which, according to a recent study, “democratic nations have a virtual monopoly on the global market”. Given that it has grown concerned about Chinese investments in and acquisitions of European technology firms, Europe should share best practices on investment screening with the US. This would be a useful step for Europe in its efforts to build up its own capabilities in the area. And one of the closest forms of cooperation between the US and many European nations is in the military realm, through NATO. As new technologies play a growing role in military affairs, it is crucial for NATO to develop joint fighting capabilities that avoid problems of interoperability. NATO can play an important coordinating role in this, but it requires encouragement and buy-in from member states to truly advance.
The US will soon be back to constructive co-operation within the multilateral system, and there is no doubt that Europeans should welcome this with open arms. But like all those in struggling relationships who agree to give it another try, Europe and the US have to commit to the idea that this time really will be different. The first step towards achieving this is for Europe to act like a global power in the relationship by clearly defining its terms and having confidence in the fact that the US needs it too. After all, it is America that is returning to the partnership.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.