US elections: Trump vs Biden

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Catherine Feore takes a microscope to Europe’s future with the US, ahead of November’s US elections.

The last four years have been a roller coaster. Just over four months after the Brexit referendum, bringing the UK’s departure from the EU into sight, the Union was hit with another shock wave, this time from across the Atlantic: the United States had just elected a president without precedent. At the time of Trump’s election there was much speculation over whether he would stick to his statements made on the campaign trail. Was it just electioneering, or would he really pull out of the Paris agreement? Start trade wars with – well – everyone? Harangue NATO partners? Build that famous wall? We now know at least some of the answers to these questions.

In her recent ‘State of the European Union’ address European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Europe must deepen and refine its partnerships with its friends and allies: “We might not always agree with recent decisions of the White House. But we will always cherish the trans-Atlantic alliance based on shared values and history and an unbreakable bond between our people.”

Von der Leyen is proposing a new trans-Atlantic agenda: “whatever may happen later this year”. While this may be the right course of action, it is difficult to see a meeting of minds with a president who has declared: “The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of the United States, I know that. They know I know that, but other presidents had no idea.”

Rubbish, but if you spent time refuting every Trump (mis)statement you’d need a few more pages. But what about a Biden presidency? Would that be back to business as usual and a relatively sane and normal relationship? Pauline Manos, chairwoman of Democrats Abroad says: “We have seen much support from Europeans, as they, too, see the implications of another four years of a Trump presidency on US foreign policy and our standing in the world. Yet it is important to remember that a President Biden will not simply be a continuation of the Obama presidency. The nation has changed in ways we probably couldn’t have imagined, with the need to address health, climate, economic and racial justice crises even more urgent.”

It’s worth remembering though that even before Trump, Obama was looking at resets – securing a commitment from NATO partners to increase their contribution to the alliance and turning American’s gaze to its interests across that even wider ocean towards Asia. When the Bush administration faced pushbacks from NATO allies France and Germany over the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld made his divisive distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe.

Trump, more than any of his predecessors, has sharpened some minds about Europe’s future relations with the US. When, in a recent poll sponsored by the Clingendael Institute, the Dutch, who are normally staunchly Atlanticist in their outlook, and somewhat Eurosceptical, were asked if they supported deeper cooperation with France and Germany, 72% supported this idea. It isn’t unreasonable to think that the European Union needs to stand on its own two feet and have a grown-up foreign policy, that it needs to look seriously at providing its own defence and security needs. However, this “geopolitical” Commission has found it as difficult as its forebears in creating unity of thought and action.

The EU’s regulation of Big Tech and proposal for a digital sales tax and a prospective carbon border tax are going to be contentious to either a Trump or Biden administration. The stakes may be about to get a lot higher if the Commission takes an even stronger approach on monopolistic tech forces. But there are nevertheless many areas where Europe has been strengthened by joint action, and if not joint action, similar outlooks.