Welcome back United States

The fragility of democracy was a recurring theme on a day that heralded a fresh chapter of optimism, reports Lorna Hutchinson.
Photo credit: Alamy

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

25 Jan 2021

On a frosty January day in Washington DC, United States President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Dr Jill Biden emerged onto the podium outside the Capitol building as flakes of snow suddenly appeared from the sky. A building which had witnessed scenes of carnage, devastation, chaos and death just two weeks earlier had managed to transform itself into an arena for hope and solidarity.

It was a presidential inauguration like no other, which, despite the traditional pomp and circumstance of the occasion, did not skirt around the two enormous elephants in the room: a global pandemic and an outgoing administration that had left the nation deeply divided. All guests - which included several former US presidents and outgoing Vice-President Mike Pence - were wearing masks and the lectern was disinfected between each speaker; clear signals that from the get-go, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris plan to take the Coronavirus pandemic extremely seriously.

“Democracy is under threat in Europe and in the US. But Joe Biden gets it. Kamala Harris gets it. They want to tackle injustice. They want to match our European Green Deal and address the climate emergency” Ciarán Cuffe, Greens/EFA

The last day of the Trump administration saw the country surpass the grim COVID-19 death toll of 400,000. Trump, for his part, broke with the 150-year tradition of attending his successor’s inauguration ceremony and left the White House that morning, flying to Joint Base Andrews on the Marine One helicopter with his wife Melania.

There he attended a “send-off” ceremony, which, with its pumping 80s soundtrack, resembled a political rally without the throngs of people, and delivered a farewell speech to a thin crowd of “MAGA” hat-wearing disciples, in which he extolled the virtues and self-proclaimed achievements of his four-year term. He promised his supporters to be “back in some form” and departed for Florida on Air Force One to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”

But Washington has certainly not seen the last of Donald J. Trump, with the ignominy of a second impeachment trial awaiting him in February. Although he is no longer President, Donald Trump’s time in office has left a lasting legacy, the myriad challenges of which were awaiting Joe Biden after taking the oath of office.

Nevertheless, Biden’s inauguration speech was inspirational, emotional and above all defiant - defiant to those who had mounted an insurrection on the Capitol on January 6 and the architects of the failed coup - and he promised that such events would never again come to pass. “Here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, and to drive us from this sacred ground. That did not happen. It will never happen. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”

“The United States are back. And Europe stands ready to reconnect with an old and trusted partner, to breathe new life in our cherished alliance” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President

Urging his fellow Americans to end “this uncivil war” and set aside the politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation, Biden vowed to repair the country’s alliances and “engage with the world once again,” adding, “we will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example; we will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the mood was equally hopeful in the European Parliament on January 20, where, earlier in the day, deputies took part in a debate on the upcoming inauguration and expectations for the new Biden administration. Opening the debate, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed “this new dawn in America,” saying, “The United States are back. And Europe stands ready to reconnect with an old and trusted partner, to breathe new life in our cherished alliance.”

Von der Leyen welcomed the United States’ return to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, adding that this would be “a very strong starting point for our renewed cooperation.” “And of course, way more is to come. We want to deepen our partnership on emissions trading and carbon pricing. We want to join forces with the United States to fight the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of nature. We want to develop the technologies that will drive us to climate neutrality.”

But amid the positivity and promise of vastly improved Transatlantic relations, von der Leyen warned of the events of January 6, saying, “The relief that many of us are feeling about the change of administration in Washington should not blind us to the fact that, although Donald Trump’s presidency may be history in just a few hours, his movement will not. More than 70 million Americans voted for him in the election. Just a few days ago, several hundred of them stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy.”

She said, “The television images of that event shocked us all. That is what happens when words incite action. That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media; they become a danger to democracy. We should take these images from the USA as a sobering warning. Despite our deep-rooted confidence in our European democracy, we are not immune to similar events.”

And it was this warning that resonated throughout the rest of the debate, as deputies hammered home the importance of protecting democracy in the face of far-right ideologies and misinformation. European Parliament Vice- President Roberta Metsola also spoke of the Capitol ransacking, pointing out, “there are many lessons for us to learn here. In Europe, the shock gave way to the realisation that the weight of the world’s democratic order now rests more heavily on our shoulders … Europe’s role on the world stage cannot be undervalued. Our belief in liberal democracy, founded in values and the rule of law, matters not just to all our citizens, but to millions more people around the globe looking to us for hope. Europe matters. Standing up for the rule of law matters. Defending democracy matters. Leaders’ words matter. Never underestimate how fragile our democracy is.”

Renew Europe leader Dacian Cioloș called the attack on the Capitol and the foundation of democracy “outrageous”, adding, “While shocking and in extreme contrast to the American political tradition, these events have easily recognisable roots: populism, the pursuit of individual interests while in public office, extreme polarisation and, certainly, big lies, made up and propagated, even from the country’s highest office.” He went on, “No democracy in the world is immune to these dangers. In Europe there are numerous politicians that flirt with the same recipe. It is our duty to stand by our values, confront them and call a lie a lie.”

S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez described the events of January 6 as “one of the darkest chapters in the history of American democracy,” adding that the new US President and Vice-President “must help create a climate of harmony that heals the wounds of division and polarisation.” She said that rejection of foreigners, racism, aversion to women, anti-semitism, climate change denial and antivaccine activism all represent the delusions of an extreme right that is increasingly present in Western democracies.

“Europe matters. Standing up for the rule of law matters. Defending democracy matters. Leaders’ words matter. Never underestimate how fragile our democracy is” Roberta Metsola, European Parliament Vice-President

“On both sides of the Atlantic we have to learn that democracies are built every day and let us not forget what the second President of the United States, John Adams, had in mind when he founded his country: ‘Freedom, once lost, is lost forever’ - it is in our hands to preserve it.” Irish Greens/EFA deputy Ciarán Cuffe declared that “hope is back in Washington”, adding, “In these dark hours we look to the dawn of Inauguration Day. Democracy is under threat in Europe and in the US. But Joe Biden gets it. Kamala Harris gets it. They want to tackle injustice. They want to match our European Green Deal and address the climate emergency. So America, welcome back to the Paris Agreement… Today is a good day. A day of hope.”

And so, with his sleeves rolled up and his mask on, President Biden stands ready to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic, mass unemployment, poverty, racial inequality and a deeply divided nation in addition to the existential threat of climate change. But Europe firmly believes that the 46th President - with the first female, black and South Asian Vice-President by his side - is more than capable of taking on this daunting task. 

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - MEPs come out in force against Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ law at Budapest Pride

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