A moment of transatlantic truth
Long gone are the days that former US President Donald Trump would show up at NATO summits bashing allies over lack of spending on defence, threatening his EU partners he would get his way by starting a trade war by unleashing tariffs on imports.
Brussels openly celebrated the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States and so did the bloc’s other 26 capitals. Trump’s exit was seen as a sign of a new era for Transatlantic relations after four years of tension with the Manhattan real estate tycoon.
But while Biden quickly undid some of the most controversial policy choices of his predecessor – signing 17 executive orders on his inauguration day - he does not seem equally eager to resolve some of the issues with Europe.
Four months after arriving in the White House, it is time for Biden to translate his warm words into in actions. But the signs he will are not great.
Over the past few days, Biden has been touring Europe. At a meeting of the G7 last week, he talked to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. He also saw Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen – presidents of the European Council and the European Commission respectively - and more Brussels VIPs.
The first contact went well. Biden’s defence of the peace process in Northern Ireland went down well with his European counterparts. He came out strongly in favour of the protocol the EU negotiated with London during the Brexit talks but which the UK is now questioning.
The EU also welcomed the role as a mediator between Greece and Turkey that Washington has taken upon itself after tensions between the Mediterranean neighbours flared up last year. Biden is expected to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the sidelines of the NATO summit this week.
On Monday, Biden will attend the NATO summit, will not deliver much fireworks. Leaders will show concern over an increasingly assertive China, address tensions with Russia and discuss the potential impact of climate change for security policies. All this is well-trod ground.
It may be more interesting to watch what happens when Biden meets Michel and von der Leyen on Tuesday.The EU and the US will need to show unity towards Russia, the vast neighbour on Europe’s east, and formulate a balanced common view of China, as a fierce competitor but also a partner in the fight against climate change and reform of the World Trade Organisation.
Brussels is expected to join Washington’s efforts to demand clarity about where the Covid-19 virus first came from and cooperate to prevent future outbreaks, looking in particular into Michel’s idea to draw up a global treaty for countries to agree on how to deal with pandemics.
But many other things will be left unsaid. At some stage, Washington and the EU are expected to bury the hatchet over the trade war, but there will be no major breakthrough on Tuesday. The two sides are trying to agree on tariffs on aluminium and steel and strike a deal in the long-lasting dispute over public subsidies to Airbus and Boeing. And while tere is always hope, a deal by the end of the year is definitely more likely than tomorrow.
EU leaders are undoubtedly more comfortable with Biden at the White House than they were with Trump. But the veteran Democrat’s arrival to the Oval Office is no magic trick that will instantly solve all pending issues between Washington and Brussels. The tone is calmer, the smiles more genuine. But there is still a lot of work ahead for the two superpowers.
What the Eurocrat also be watching:
The European Commission is expected to give its blessing this week to some of the recovery plans countries presented to get their share of a joint €750 billion corona fund, including Luxembourg’s.
The decision should come as soon as Wednesday, on time for EU Finance ministers to discuss the much-delayed plan on Friday. Once the ministers agree with von der Leyen’s team, money can finally start flowing over the summer.
Finance minister will also seek a common position on the upcoming G20 negotiation over a global minimum corporate tax rate. The G7 backed the current proposal of a 15% rate.