When Joe Biden assumed power on January 20th, many European leaders were relieved. Their relationship with Trump was famously fractious and some thought that a new Democratic administration would reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship, creating shared priorities among both partners. Reality, however, might dash those initial hopes, as there are some deep problems the US-EU relationship will face in the near future, regardless of who’s living in the White House.
Although Biden has managed to achieve some sort of cooperative spirit between Washington DC and Brussels on some issues, like sanctioning russian officials involved in Navalny’s poisoning, these will not be enough to restore a partnership between actors that have different (even contradictory) interests in many issues.
In order to retain a workable alliance, both partners will have to reach a tacit agreement on how to deal with two regional powers who can upset the global balance of power (China and Russia) while carefully managing the new economic and political relationship between the U.S, the EU, and the UK.
1) Can Biden prevent Chinese influence?
If there is one issue where the growing schism between Europe and the U.S is the cozy attitude Brussels is developing with China, an ever important issue as the world prepares itself for renewed competition between Beijing and Washington DC. While American and Chinese officials clash in Alaska during the first high-level meeting between both countries during the Biden Administration, European and Chinese representatives have already published key principles of a new investment agreement between both blocs.
China is already one of the most important trade partners of the European continent, being its first importer and its second market for exports, according to data provided by the European Commision. The ongoing trade negotiations between Europe and Beijing are just another confirmation that the bloc is looking to enhance its business ties with China, an issue that will surely increase tensions between the continent and the U.S as the latter tries to ensure alliances to contest chinese expansion.
More troubling for Biden, however, is the fact that Europe has continued its negotiations with China despite the clear calls of the incoming Biden administration to not move forwards before having some type of common approach towards China. By acting with “strategic autonomy” (Macron’s favorite term) Europe is sending clear signs that building a common front against Chinese expansions would not be an easy task for the Biden White House.
The disastrous meeting at Alaska has shown Biden that mistrust with China remains at an all time high, ensuring years of competition and tensions between the worlds two biggest economies. If the U.S wants to succeed at checking the growing influence of Beijing, it will need to have reliable partners, the latest overtures of Europe towards China shows that this will be a task much easier said than done.
2) Russia remains a tricky subject
Biden has started his presidency with strong condemnations towards some of Putin’s worst deeds. He sanctioned him due to his treatment of Navalny, questioned him on Russia’s involvement in hacks and bounties on American soldiers, and even called the russian president a killer in an interview, previewing a very tough stance of the U.S towards the Kremlin over the next four years.
Biden has domestic political reasons to take this type of stance against Moscow, as almost half of Democrats consider Russia to be the greatest enemy of the United States. Nevertheless, he might find this heavy-handed stance a hindrance in his attempts to reinforce the transatlantic relationship.
While some european countries find Russia as a substantive military threat to their sovereignty, specially after the Crimean Invasion of 2014, some of the key players in the continent hold a more lukewarm approach to the Kremlin.
Germany, by far the most important actor in the continent, has been working for years to develop a gas pipeline (nordstream 2) that would connect russian gas to european markets, enhancing its supply. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has become one of the key supporters of the energy project and has maintained her steadfast support to the venture, even after being pressured by many to drop it due to Putin’s constant violations to human rights.
Skeptics, however, see the move as a russian strategy to increase its leverage in Europe, with the U.S saying that it represents a “bad deal for Europe” . The United States has accompanied its tough rhetoric against Putin with heavy-handed actions, with Secretary Blinken telling companies to immediately withdraw form the project or face financial sanctions from the U.S.
This tug of war between Biden and Putin over the Nord Stream 2 issue will surely create tumbling stones to the transatlantic relationship, with Biden pushing for a reassertion of American dominance over the relationship between Russia and the West and some Europeans trying to find a different, more conciliatory approach with the Kremlin.
3) Britain, the uncomfortable third wheel
Since the end of World War Two, London has usually played the role of bridge between the continent and the U.S. As their “special relationship” with the US and their presence in the European Economic Community (then the EU) allowed them to have one feet in each side of the pond, trasmitting european concerns to Washington and viceversa.
Brexit, however, has changed the nature of the equation significantly. The United States not only cannot count on London to be their preferable intermediary with Europe, but also have to be very careful in not letting the post-divorce tensions between London and Brussels to affect the image Washington DC has in both sides of the English channel.
The UK and the U.S. maintain a similarly tough approach towards Russia and China, with the UK taking significant measures against Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and also calling Russia the “most acute threat to our security” in a government report published this year. While in the past, the U.S could largely rely on some degree of support from London when talking with Brussels, that is no longer the case, which could hamper America’s capacity to act.
Biden will also need to be careful at any type of trade deal that offered by the UK, which has as this would most likely not be seen with good eyes in Brussels, as it would prove that there are some significant benefits from leaving the economic bloc. Opening the possibility of the US getting involved in the messy post-brexit relationships between the UK and the EU, hampering the efforts of Biden to restore european confidence in the U.S.
The United States knows that it cannot face the growing challenges of this decade without a strong and reliable web of alliances capable of amplifying the military and economic power of the U.S. and Europe is a fundamental part of such plan. However, creating an effective trasatalntic relationship able to confront China and Russia would prove to be a herculean task for Biden and Secretary Blinken.