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What Does A Biden Presidency Mean For Europe?

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By Chris Doyle*

How will Europe react to President Joe Biden and the end of the Trump era? The stakes for many are high. The relationship with the US remains for most European states their most important strategic relationship. The occupant of the White House matters greatly for nearly all, and perhaps ever more so given the huge gulf in approach between Trump and Biden. Many European leaders will be anxious to be among the first on Biden’s call list and will hope that his first presidential visit will be to Europe.

One could almost hear the huge sigh of relief in European capitals when the election was called for Biden on Saturday. Bells were even rung in Paris and Munich. This was particularly the case in western Europe. For the last four years the Trump administration has proved tough to handle, creating huge uncertainties as to what it would do next, how committed it was to the transatlantic partnership, to NATO, to tackling climate change, and crucially for many, standing up to Vladimir Putin of Russia. To a large extent a Biden administration is expected to allay all these fears, reaching out to historic allies and reinforcing the old alliances.

Most of Europe will welcome a more multilateral US administration and the ditching of the isolationist, anti-free trade Trump approach, and also the end of the Muslim ban. But perhaps most importantly, European leaders will hope that a Biden administration will return the US to the WHO and encourage a more united effort in defeating the coronavirus pandemic.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis claimed to be the first world leader to congratulate Biden, no doubt hoping for support in Greece’s crisis with Turkey, but it may be Germany and Ireland that top the countries that are most enthusiastic about a Biden administration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reaction spoke volumes. “Our transatlantic friendship is irreplaceable if we are to master the great challenges of our time.”

Merkel and Trump’s relationship ranged from zero chemistry to an almost overt aversion to one another. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Trump’s failure to concede: “America is more than a one-man show. Anyone who continues to pour oil on the fire in a situation like this is acting irresponsibly. Now is the time to keep a cool head until an independently determined result is available.”

Germans remember Trump’s recent ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, who threatened German companies working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and cozied up to the German far right. German leaders will be expecting Biden to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw 12,000 US troops.

The Irish were quick to play on Biden’s Irish ancestry and his relatives were leading the celebrations. They expect Biden to support Ireland, not least on issues relating to Brexit. No doubt many spot an opening in the EU with the departure of Britain that perhaps Ireland can act as a key bridge between the two. Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin said: “Ireland takes pride in Joe Biden’s election, just as we are proud of all the generations of Irish women and Irish men and their ancestors whose toil and genius have enriched the diversity that powers America.”

The French reaction was more sanguine. President Macron had his ups and downs with Trump. Many in the French camp want to see the EU less dependent on the US and chart its own independent course. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, argued that the US and EU “will not return to the status that prevailed before, to a kind of good old days in the transatlantic relationship. The world has moved in four years. Europe is trying to become a power unto itself, instead of relying on US support.”

Yet not all nerves are calmed. Trump has around 70 days more in office. He is clearly unhappy with the results of the election. He expects loyalty from his friends and may not take kindly to those who openly seek to ingratiate themselves with the Biden transition team.

More than a few countries can see some road bumps ahead with Biden. The incoming president will wish to see a concerted joint strategy on China, for example. Like Trump, he will also wish to see increased European defense expenditure. Britain will be nervous. Boris Johnson is unloved in the Obama-Biden camp, not least because of what it perceives as a racist comment made by the UK leader about Obama’s Kenyan ancestry.

Biden did not want to see Britain leave the EU. His team has made it very clear that Britain can forget any trade deal with the US if the Northern Ireland peace agreement is not respected in full. It also appears that a trade deal is not in Biden’s plan for the first 100 days. Johnson’s initial congratulations hardly appeared effusive. “The US is our most important ally and I look forward to working closely together on our shared priorities from climate change to trade and security.” Johnson has yet to meet Biden.

Yet if Johnson does not rile Biden over Northern Ireland and even secures a free trade deal with the EU, Britain, like many western European countries, can point to many issues of common interest. Britain will be hosting the COP-26 conference on climate change next year in Glasgow, a priority for the Biden team. The UK opposed Trump’s pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, so will welcome the chance to work with Biden to push for a revised deal with Iran. But those who cling to the outdated notion of the “special relationship” will be in for a shock.

The US-UK relationship will be strong despite Johnson, but it will be one of many special relationships.

While western European states were largely delighted with the results, this was not the case with many eastern European states. Some, such as Poland and Hungary, basked in Trump’s hard-line, anti-immigration stances because it allowed them to adopt similar policies. Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa, a Trump cheerleader in Europe, tweeted that he backed Trump’s claim to have won. Orban’s Hungary will also be nervous about Trump’s departure. Trump’s ambassador in Budapest, David Cornstein, described Orban as “the perfect partner,” ignoring the dictatorial tendencies of the Hungarian leader.

The US-European relationship is rarely smooth. Trump’s departure is not going to herald a golden era. Biden may well focus on other regions but European leaders will crave a degree of certainty and traditional diplomacy which will make a welcome change from the last four years. It will serve as a crushing blow to the far right and populist movements that have prospered so much during the Trump presidency.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech

Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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