The din has settled from Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election and it has become very apparent that relations between the US and its two lovers in Europe aren’t going to be getting any easier. Both the UK and the EU hope for a reset in relations with the world’s last superpower, but questions are being asked over whether this is possible and at what cost such a reset will come.
For the UK, many have claimed that a Biden presidency will see the country pushed to the back of the queue on issues such as trade and security, as Joe Biden views Brexit Britain as part of the populist surge that brought America, Trump, and instead wants to rebuild vibrant liberal democracy, which some claim he sees as personified in the EU. The UK has not been helped by the government’s Internal Market Bill, which drew criticism from Joe Biden and members of his inner circle for the harm it could cause to Ireland.
However, all is not grim. Opportunities exist for the UK and the US to reset their relationship. As has been pointed out elsewhere, both countries want to see a successful climate summit in Glasgow in November, 2021, both want to bring Iran back to the negotiation table over its nuclear programme and both want to strengthen NATO especially in the area of cybersecurity, where the UK is a world leader. Then of course there is the similar rhetoric on protecting democracy.
Joe Biden has called for a Summit for Democracy to ensure that participating nations commit to fighting corruption, preventing the spread of the surveillance state and to advancing human rights in their own countries as well as abroad. Boris Johnson and his foreign secretary Dominic Raab, have both made protecting democracy and human rights one of their top priorities.
To this end they have rescinded their extradition treaty with Hong Kong after the Chinese government imposed a National Security Law, they have also offered a pathway to citizenship to 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for British National Overseas passports. The government has also inserted its own Magnitsky provisions into the UK Sanctions Act, which has put sanctions on individuals from Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea as well as Belarus.
These steps can serve as the foundation for a more modern 21st Century ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US.
As for the EU and the US, Joe Biden’s election has made some commentators in the UK believe that Biden will pivot toward the bloc and do business directly with Brussels, but within the bloc itself there has been renewed debate about how the EU approaches the US.
Some such as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel strongly believe that the EU cannot continue to rely on the US for its own security and must thus push forwards to promote its own strategic security and political interests. This view comes from the belief that it is inevitable that the EU and the US will not always share the same interests and that at some point another disruptor will come along who will cause all sorts of chaos, and therefore it is better for the EU to be prepared to go its own way now rather than be shocked into it like they were with Trump.
Consequently, there are increased pushes from what can be termed as Gaullicsts (after the French President Charles de Gaulle and his skepticism of the US) to increase the unity of the EU’s 27 members to react quickly to world events, alongside an increase in defense spending and promotion of the blocs own economic interests/ business interests.
On the other hand, there are the Altanticists who believe that breaking from the US for ‘strategic autonomy’ would be a grave mistake. Amongst their group are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Karrenbauer herself argued in an op-ed that European strategic autonomy was nothing but an illusion and a dangerous one at that. Karrenbauer believes that the EU cannot replace America’s crucial role within the continent as a security provider and that like her boss Merkel, the US is an indispensable ally to help deal with the major challenges of the time.
Atlanticists are also quick to point out that during the most recent budget meetings in July, defence related spending came nowhere near the aspirations set by the European Commission, suggesting that EU military strategic autonomy is a long way off yet and that the US is still the only viable solution to issues such as Russia.
Then on the point of economic autonomy, Atlanticists also point out that suspicions still linger amongst individual member states that the bloc’s heavyweights favour the policy only to advance their own national interests rather than those of Europe as a whole.
These points show that whilst Britain may face issues regarding the Internal Market Bill and Boris Johnson and Joe Biden’s personal relationship, overall they may still be regarded as the safer bet for a Biden administration looking to step out into the world again. The EU appears to be torn over how it wants to see itself and how it wants others to see it. Trump’s presidency provided a sharp wake up call, and until the EU decides how it wants to proceed, it cannot really be seen as Biden’s true ally in Europe.