BRUSSELS — Europe is eager for “a political climate change” after Joe Biden is sworn in on Wednesday, but if the new American president is preoccupied with troubles at home it is prepared to move ahead in key areas on its own, European leaders and analysts say.
European countries, with their own problems of division and the pandemic, understand Biden’s need to concentrate first on domestic issues of vaccination, employment, right-wing extremism and polarization, especially after the rampage on Capitol Hill.
But global problems have accelerated under President Donald Trump, and Europe cannot subordinate its own interests and agenda even to a desire for a reinvigorated alliance and “a political climate change,” said France’s minister of finance and the economy, Bruno Le Maire, emphasizing that this was not simply a French view but an increasing European consensus.
Despite the Biden team’s expressed interest in a healthy trans-Atlantic relationship, America’s future now is less predictable and dependable, Le Maire suggested in an interview. There is deepening concern that the array of crises confronting the Biden administration will take time to work through and that there is no telling how they will be resolved.
European leaders were “aghast” at the events in the Capitol, and “looking at that and the riots in many U.S. cities, there is a risk of American society being split and the American administration not being in a situation to assume its worldwide responsibilities,” Le Maire said.
“The European Union and European countries have a strategic choice to make, either to wait for the United States and the Biden administration to take decisions, or to move on,” Le Maire said. “We need to move on the fight against climate change, the building of new industrial assets, innovation and pave the way for a new European continent that will be stronger, more independent and able to run the race of the new technologies.”
This European concern about a more inward-looking United States is legitimate, said Charles A. Kupchan, a former Obama official and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, arguing that America’s domestic troubles “will hugely affect foreign policy.”
Biden has surrounded himself with well-known liberal interventionists in foreign policy, but “you have in Biden someone who understands that the major national-security threat to the United States right now is us,” meaning Americans themselves, Kupchan said. “It’s the degree to which we’re facing an electorate at least half of which is in revolt.”
As a politician with his eye on the midterm congressional elections, “Biden will focus like a laser in his first year on the pandemic, on reopening the economy, on unemployment, on infrastructure, on health care, on an economic stimulus,” Kupchan said. “There will be much less time, energy and money for foreign policy.”
Sophia Besch and Luigi Scazzieri of the Center for European Reform argue in a new paper that “many Europeans will want to forget Trump’s presidency ever happened.” But they add, “Europe cannot continue to look to the U.S. to answer key questions on what its interests are and how it should pursue them.”
That’s particularly true for defense, on which most European leaders agree more must be spent.
Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, asserts that Europeans cannot replace the United States as a security provider, as do Central and Eastern European leaders. But others, especially President Emmanuel Macron of France and the EU foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, argue that Europeans cannot be sure of America’s reliability.
Biden’s victory should not distract or discourage Europeans from a goal of a more independent defense and more strategic autonomy, they say, even in the context of NATO.
There are particular issues, like terrorism, instability in North Africa and migration, where Europeans feel they need to be able to act more effectively on their own.
“Where we Europeans need to be careful about our expectations from the Americans is in our neighborhood,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs. On issues including Belarus, Ukraine and the Balkans, “coordination with the U.S. is important, but we can’t expect the U.S. to step up its engagement,” she said.
But after four years of Trump’s antagonism toward Europe, and the continuing popularity of many of his “America First” policies, Europeans are more convinced than before that alliance cannot mean subordination to Washington and requires more European capacity to act alone.
“Our determination is to be a strong ally of the United States, but an ally does not mean that we submit,” Le Maire said. “We must make a clear difference between working together with the United States toward China, for instance, and working under the leadership of the United States. This is not the same.”
Macron and other European leaders want a serious conversation with a new Biden team about a common strategy toward China, but “without having the United States explaining that this is our plan and you have to obey it — this would not be acceptable."
He defended the sudden European deal with China on an investment treaty as in Europe’s interests and rejected the notion of Europe as the co-pilot in an American fighter jet aimed at Beijing.
But together, “we must find a common response to China’s unfair practices, such as dumping, industrial subsidies, state-owned companies, non-reciprocity in public procurements and the manipulation of exchange rates,” Le Maire said.
A serious effort at balancing mutual interests “could signify a new start in the relationship between our two continents,” he said.
The key issues for Europe and a new Biden administration, he said, included trade, where both sides “need to end the cycle of sanctions and retaliation”; the fight against climate change, with a welcome for Biden’s pledge to rejoin the Paris climate accord; digital regulation and a fair system of digital taxation; and again, a joint strategy toward China.
In many of these areas, Le Maire is echoing proposals made for a revived trans-Atlantic agenda by two of the main EU bodies, the European Commission and European Council, at the end of last year.
How to regulate and tax global tech and internet companies is a prime concern. “The internet giants are able to present lies as reality and truth,” Le Maire said, citing false claims by Trump that he had won the election. “That kind of mix between lies and truth is to me the most important issue we have to deal with in our Western democracies.”
But the answer could not be censorship, the way Twitter and Facebook banned Trump, he said. “I don’t think you can be the platform and the regulator at the same time,” no matter how good your intentions, he said. “Strong, credible regulation” could only be done by elected representatives, “who have the legitimacy to make law.”
For all the legitimate concerns about U.S. division and preoccupation, there is considerable optimism about Biden, said Patrycja Sasnal of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
The United States is “returning home,” she said. When Europe and America stand together, “then they get things done, and it will give them both greater agency in foreign policy.”