Biden builds bridges after turbulent Trump era

New US President undertook an intensive programme of meetings on his keenly-awaited European trip but, asks Martin Banks, what did Joe Biden's visit actually achieve?
Photo credit: EU Council Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

22 Jun 2021

So, did the EU and US seize the opportunity to strengthen their partnership during Joe Biden’s whirlwind visit? Well, there was certainly no shortage of consultations and negotiations on everything from trade and China to climate change and, naturally, the ongoing COVID health crisis.

There was, of course, also a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for many the key moment of his visit. Throw in his presence, amid the beautiful backdrop of a Cornish vista, a tête-à-tête with the Queen of Britain at the G7, a summit of NATO leaders in Brussels and the 78-year-old president had plenty of “souvenirs” to take back to the States.

“The will to work together with the closest allies has undoubtedly returned. The G7 summit in Cornwall, the NATO summit and the EU-US summit in Brussels clearly showed this” 
David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee

Of course, Europe and the US did not see eye-to-eye on everything, but for senior German MEP David McAllister the visit was a success. The EPP Group deputy, chair of parliament’s influential foreign affairs committee, said the meeting between Biden and the EU’s leadership was “another milestone in the new transatlantic partnership.”

He went on to say, “The will to work together with the closest allies has undoubtedly returned. The G7 summit in Cornwall, the NATO summit and the EU-US summit in Brussels clearly showed this. The suspension of the harmful tariffs related to the Airbus-Boeing dispute for five years is a very concrete and tangible outcome of the EU-US summit. The US is and remains our most important political and economic partner."

"We would give our economies a boost in the post-pandemic recovery if all trade related disputes could be resolved. Let us further collaborate trustfully to address bilateral issues as well as global challenges.”

The EU-US summit in Brussels, the first in some seven years, was, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a chance for the two sides to renew their commitment to a “strong transatlantic partnership based on common values and interests.”

So, what were the tangible results of Biden’s chinwag with EU leaders? Well, on global warming, the EU and US stressed, in a joint statement, that they had “strengthened cooperation to tackle climate change, environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity and promote green growth.”

It was also agreed that they would set up an ‘EU-US High-Level Climate Action Group’ to coordinate efforts towards the “effective implementation” of the Paris Agreement.

Another major step forward was the two sides agreeing to work on how to reform the World Health Organisation. Socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, her group’s spokesperson on trade, welcomed this, as a way for the WHO “to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.”

However, perhaps the main achievement was a deal on a marathon dispute that makes even the tedious Brexit saga look like a sprint. After 17 years, a five-year truce was struck on the Airbus-Boeing trade dispute over subsidies to airplane makers. Von der Leyen said this was “a major step in resolving the longest trade dispute in the history of the WTO.”

S&D Group MEP Bernd Lange, chair of Parliament’s trade committee and responsible for EU-US trade relations, said the “ceasefire” was an “encouraging sign that our partnership is back: we can now look each other in the eye, discuss differences and tackle joint challenges together.”

He continued, “While finding a permanent solution will take some more time, it’s also a relief for many sectors on both sides of the Atlantic that have suffered from retaliatory tariffs. It is a confidence-building step for future engagements. As a next step, I expect the US administration to now work towards rectifying Trump’s bad decisions of slapping unjustified and unlawful tariffs on steel and aluminium on the EU.”

He added, “With the election of Biden not everything has changed, but a lot of things are better now.”

On defence, the EU and US agreed to establish a “high-level dialogue” on Russia and to “coordinate policies and actions. ”Some felt that Russia and Biden’s historic Geneva meeting with Putin, which got off to a particularly frosty start where the two men could barely look each other in the eye at a photo shoot, somewhat overshadowed the visit but, according to a European Council on Foreign Relations poll of more than 17,000 citizens in 12 member states, Russia is not actually seen as a “rival” or “adversary” but a “necessary partner”.

Just 17 percent of respondents said they saw Russia as an adversary. On President Biden’s hoped for re-engagement with Europe, only one in five see the US as an “ally” that shares in Europe’s “values and interests”.

Assessing the prospects for the transatlantic relationship under the Biden administration, Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for  European Reform, cautioned that, even after the often turbulent Trump era, NATO and EU colleagues “should not get carried away” by the new man in the White House.

Bond says, “Biden is above all an American politician, whose primary goal is to look after the interests of his voters. At NATO, as with trade policy, Biden has not been quite the antithesis of Trump that Europeans hoped for.” He added that on China, the relationship between the EU and the new administration got off to a “bad start” but has since improved.

“We can now look each other in the eye, discuss differences and tackle joint challenges together” 
Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s trade committee

China certainly emerged during the visit as public enemy number one for the US. Bond says if Biden wants to “avoid the return of Trumpism; he needs to be able to show that his European policy is delivering tangible security and prosperity advantages for ordinary Americans. The traditional souvenirs of an American president’s European trip – a couple of 40-page summit declarations – will not be good enough.”

For Greens/EFA MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, his group’s foreign policy spokesperson, it had been “a long time” that a G7 summit had given rise to “positive expectations” and he praised Biden’s “dynamism” and “vigour.”

But, looking to the future, he too warned that there is “still a considerable way to go” and this could only be achieved if the EU “not only demands equal partnership from Biden, ‘partnership in leadership’, but also develops practical ambitions to provide it.”

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