Views from the Capitals: What Biden’s victory means for Europe

What will a Biden administration herald for Europe? The heads of ECFR’s seven offices report on the mood in the capitals

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Berlin: No return to normal

Jana Puglierin

Berlin breathed an audible sigh of relief when the news broke that Joe Biden had won the race for the White House. During the Trump administration, bilateral relations between Germany and the United States deteriorated to an unprecedented low. From Berlin, it felt as if Germany was Donald Trump’s least favourite US ally. Most worrying was his attempt to undermine the international organisations that Germany sees as linchpins of global diplomacy, from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization and even the European Union itself.

German policymakers are now looking to the future with renewed hope. Building on the good relations forged with key Democratic foreign policy figures during the Obama years, the Germans hope that they will once more become a sought-after partner. They have noticed with pleasure that Biden wants to return to multilateralism and see him as an ally in achieving progress on crucial issues such as international climate protection, global pandemic control, relations with Iran, and NATO reform.

While there is a great deal of longing for the good old days of the transatlantic relationship, politicians of all colours emphasise that there will be no return to normal. Germany in particular will be expected to contribute more to European and transatlantic security. The Germans will also have to change their China policy in order to find a joint approach with a Biden administration. The pressure on Germany over Nord Stream 2, defence spending, and the trade surplus will remain. But Berlin is hoping for more understanding of German sensitivities and cooperative solutions.


London: No more excuses

Nick Witney

London is resigned to making a slow start with the new US administration. Joe Biden has called Boris Johnson “a physical and emotional clone of Trump”; has not concealed his disapproval of Brexit; and has warned that Britain can go whistle for a bilateral trade deal if it endangers peace in Ireland by persisting in its latest manoeuvres to cheat on last year’s withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

But there is hope of recovering ground in 2021, when good fortune puts Britain in the chair of the G7 and of the COP26 climate summit. Biden the pragmatist, London believes, will come round to a proper appreciation of Britain’s importance and utility in pursuing his international agenda. Talk of a “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” in Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policy hints at a new arena in which Britain will hope to ingratiate itself with the US.

Most immediately, however, the US election leaves Johnson bereft of further excuse to prevaricate on the key Brexit question – does he want a trade deal with the EU, or not? For Johnson, this was always going to be an eleventh-hour, strictly political decision. It will not help him with the Brexiteer extremists if doing a deal involves not just inevitable compromise but backing down on the threat to breach the withdrawal agreement. But the atmospherics feel different after the election: bluster and iconoclasm seem less attractive, pragmatism and compromise more acceptable. The odds on an EU-UK trade deal have shortened.


Madrid: A sigh of relief

José Ignacio Torreblanca

Spaniards are committed Europeans and reluctant Atlanticists. This goes back to American support for General Franco and Europe’s support for democracy. It means that, generally speaking, and with the brief exception of prime minister José María Aznar’s ‘special relationship’ with George W Bush during the Iraq war, Spaniards tend to feel at ease with Democratic presidents and uncomfortable with Republican ones.

Besides ideology and emotions, Donald Trump’s policies on some key issues for Spain – such as trade, the Middle East, and Latin America – have been damaging. His unilateral and unjustified sanctions on Spanish agricultural producers have harmed the southern, most economically depressed regions of Spain. Threats of secondary economic sanctions on Spanish firms operating in Cuba or Iran have also been a matter of concern. In the Middle East, Spain has witnessed with great frustration Trump’s one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. More generally, as a country whose foreign policy is fully committed to deeper European integration and to sustaining multilateralism, Trump’s assault on international agreements and bodies like the Paris climate accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the World Health Organization, UNRWA, and the United States’ refusal to cooperate with OECD members on issues like digital taxation have all been regular sources of frustration. 

To make things worse, Trump has helped poison domestic politics and further polarise Spanish society. Vox, the right-wing party that emerged in the 2019 general election to become the third political force in the country, had banked on Trump remaining in the White House and using him to amplify its policies. This is not to mention the role Steve Bannon played in setting up and launching the party. As a consequence, the president’s departure is a huge relief, both in foreign and domestic political terms. Trump’s fifth column in both international institutions and at home may not disappear, but its weakening will open new space for Spain’s foreign policy in key regions like Latin America and the Middle East and for key themes like multilateralism, regional cooperation, and climate change. 


Paris: Defending European sovereignty

Mathilde Ciulla

When Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump were elected, observers attempted to draw comparisons between the two presidents: both came from outside the political system and both were explicit about wanting to change the political landscape. But, despite Macron’s efforts to engage with his American counterpart and to convince him of the value of multilateralism, the track record of the transatlantic relationship over the last few years is not bright.

But with Joe Biden in the White House, Macron can start again and help build a “rebalanced relationship” with the US, as foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Twitter. Germany’s relations with the United States suffered even more than France’s under Trump, and there might be some real damage to repair before the two countries can go back to the level of trust before Trump: with Angela Merkel due to stand down, Macron could be at the forefront of renewed multilateral engagement. The new US president is likely to be amenable to this, and he has already committed to re-entering the multilateral agreements Trump abandoned.

Last week, Le Drian argued that the European Union had made decent use of the last four years to affirm its sovereignty in areas like security, defence, and strategic autonomy. He urged Europeans to continue their efforts, whoever the president, including on issues important for France in a European context: to agree on a digital tax, to enhance a green transition, and to develop a common strategy on China and Asia. France used the few days of uncertainty over the result of the election to send a message to its European counterparts: whoever sits in the White House for the next four years, the transatlantic relationship will never be the same again; and France is ready to defend European sovereignty when building its relationship with the new US president.


Rome: Healing the rift

Arturo Varvelli

Joe Biden’s victory was received with enthusiasm by most of the political forces backing Italy’s current government, particularly the Democratic Party and the party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi. Throughout the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the friendship between Italy and the United States was never in question; in fact, when Matteo Salvini’s League party was in power, Rome and Washington were aligned along the same national-populist and anti-European lines. There was, nevertheless, no shortage of friction with the US, especially when Italy signed a memorandum with China in March 2019 – a clumsy political move that earned Rome no real advantage amid increasing intra-European and transatlantic tensions.

The Middle East and North Africa are always high on Italy’s agenda, and it is unlikely that Biden will seek to resume a more politically and militarily active stance there. Unconditional support for the Gulf states may not be forthcoming, and America’s strategic retreat from the region left the door open for Turkey and Russia and may continue to slow. The US may start to take more of an interest again in the Libya crisis. This means that Italy could take on a more active role as the linchpin with the US and Germany, possibly with the additional benefit of cushioning the clash between two major NATO countries, France and Turkey.

The fact remains that in the past 20 years Italy has been a medium-sized power in decline. In the post-war period, Italy essentially cashed in on its standing as an essential bulwark against Soviet expansion in Europe, one in which the US invested heavily. After losing its centrality, Italy has struggled to rebuild its position. Biden’s victory will probably go some way towards healing the rift between Europe and the US and slowing the disintegration of the multilateral system that has been under way for at least a decade. In Italy this could lead to a new pro-European stance, one that is not inherently anti-American. But this simply cannot be reduced to a formal return to business as usual. A return to emphasising Italy’s sovereignty from the EU is not in Italy’s best interest.


Warsaw: Adjusting to circumstances

Piotr Buras

President Andrzej Duda’s slow and hesitant congratulations for President-elect Joe Biden speak for themselves: Warsaw is not at ease with the outcome of the US election. The populist government of the Law and Justice party fared well with Trump both ideologically and in terms of strategic military and energy cooperation. While western Europe bemoaned America’s retrenchment from Europe, Poland was welcoming new US soldiers and celebrating agreements on nuclear cooperation. Will all that be gone with Biden?

The ideological proximity will turn into mutual distrust, that is for sure. Law and Justice strategists already claim that the Democrat’s victory “is not good for the Western world” as it will cause America to resemble the “leftist-liberal European Union”. Putting ideological rhetoric aside, it is true that Polish backsliding on democracy and the rule of law will not fit well with the new president’s idea of an alliance of democracies. Washington will probably become more vocal against violations of democratic principles. However, Biden is likely to stick to those US commitments that are key for Poland’s security: the primacy of NATO, the strengthening of the eastern flank, and opposition to Nord Stream 2. His tough stance on Russia is well known – to Poland’s liking.

Washington’s future relationship with Warsaw will ultimately depend on Biden’s new approach to Europe. Unlike Trump he will not be interested in intra-European divisions. He will push Poland to cooperate more closely with Germany instead of betting on tensions between these two neighbours. And he will expect that all Europeans should bear more responsibility for the EU’s security, not at least in Europe’s southern neighbourhood. Even if the bilateral relationship with the US remains stable, Poland will have to adjust its European policy to the new circumstances.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Programme Coordinator, ECFR Paris
Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow
Head, ECFR Rome
Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow

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