Trump-era scars and diverging interests will shape US-EU relations under Biden

By Maxwell Fuller, BSc Economics and Politics Student at University of Bristol

European Union leaders breathed a sigh of relief as Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump in the recent United States presidential election. US-EU relations over the past four years have been fraught with disagreements over issues such as Iran, climate change, trade, and more recently the World Health Organisation. The Biden presidency is unlikely to feature such public spats. Indeed, Biden committed to deepening the US-EU relationship on phone call with the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen soon after his election win (Herszenhorn, 2020). However, with talk of EU strategic autonomy and disagreements between Biden and EU leaders on issues such as technology regulation, there is a question of just how deep the US-EU relationship can be.

The extent to which a Trump presidency would go on to damage US-EU relations was revealed only a few months into his presidency when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reacting to a fractious G7 summit, stated that “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent” (Paravicini, 2017). At the 2017 meeting in Sicily, the newly elected President refused to sign the unanimous declaration that would affirm the countries’ commitment to the Paris accord on climate change. The climate would go on to be one of the key sticking points in US-EU relations over the four years with the US announcing in the 2017 that they would withdraw from the Paris agreement . Washington’s approach to climate change has contrasted sharply to that of the EU which has strengthened their commitment to cutting carbon emission and pursued international cooperation on the issue.

Iran and the future of the nuclear agreement, formally known as the JCPOA, has also proved to be a contentious issue over Trump’s tenure. The deal - signed in 2015 between the EU, Britain, Germany, France, and the US - was an attempt to engage with Iran and limit nuclear enrichment without escalating tensions. Trump decided not to follow his predecessor in these efforts, withdrawing from the deal in 2018 and instead pursuing a campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ against the country which has included a series of sanctions aimed at weakening Tehran. Europe has stayed committed to keeping the deal alive, rejecting US calls to break the terms of JCPOA to prevent arms embargos from lapsing. Tensions over how to deal with Iran escalated at the beginning of 2020 when the US carried out a drone strike killing Qasem Soleimani, the Commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force.

Trans-Atlantic disputes over trade have another feature of Trump’s time in office. President Trump has been aggrieved by the United States’ trade deficit in goods with the EU, saying that the trading relationship with the EU has been “almost as bad over the years as China” (Williams 2020). Tensions first escalated in 2018 when the President proposed putting a tariff of 25% of car and auto parts imports (Shepardson, 2019). With the threat of retaliatory tariffs from the EU, both sides eventually climbed down. Whilst this détente was meant to mark a “new phase” in trading relations between the two, there have been few signs of rapprochement on trade with only one tariff reducing EU-US agreement which concerned lobsters (Williams, 2020).

It is over these issues that the EU hopes a Biden administration will be more forthcoming in cooperation. In an article written in Foreign Affairs before his election, the incoming President committed to re-joining the Iran nuclear deal, stating that he would “use [his] renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it” (Biden, 2020). The former Vice-President’s cabinet appointees also indicate that he will take an approach towards Iran that better aligns the US with the EU. Jake Sullivan, soon to be Biden’s National Security Advisor, served in the Obama administration and was instrumental in brokering the deal in 2015.

The EU is also hoping for a greater degree of cooperation with regards to climate change. In reaction to the Biden’s election, Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs representative, said the world will be “different with the U.S. in the fight against climate [change]”. Furthermore, the EU has stated that it sees the opportunity to link trade and climate change goals, a prospect only possible because of the likely easing of trade tensions once Biden enters office (EU, 2020).

However, pre-existing tensions and scars of the Trump administration may prove to be sticking points in trans-Atlantic relations under the incoming President. There is the potential for disagreements over defence spending in relation to commitments to NATO. Under Obama, the US criticised European powers for not meeting the 2% share of GDP that has been agreed to be spent on defence. Whilst countries such as Germany have gotten closer to this benchmark over the past 4-years, there is still a large gap. The EU may indeed decide to go its on way on defence, scarred by the lack of cooperation under Trump. This is favoured by French President Macron who has stressed the idea of European ‘strategic autonomy’, not only in defence but in technology and other areas (Élysée, 2020). Importantly, defence autonomy is contested in the EU with Atlanticists in the bloc arguing that it is an unrealistic goal.

Where there is little debate about autonomy in Europe is with regards to technology and industry. The EU has hopes of combating the United States’ dominance in tech. Splits that already exist with regards to anti-trust, data protection and the possibility of a digital tax are likely to persist with the Biden administration, even if the dust ups are not so public. As such, whilst EU leaders may sleep a little easier after the election result, there was, as European Council President Charles Michel put it, “no euphoria” (European Council 2020).

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