US Election 2020 – Europe is watching as Biden and Trump battle it out

The last four years have been a roller coaster. In 2016 Americans voted for 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 lot more space.

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.

One area where we have witnessed the power and influence of the United States is in the implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, most notably on the commitment to keep a “soft” border on the island of Ireland. Following the UK’s proposal for an Internal Market Bill that would be in breach with its commitments, Biden made an unequivocal statement: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

This may be a special case, since the successful negotiations were led by Democratic Senator George Mitchell. The only EU leader who was supportive of a Trump victory in 2016 was Europe’s “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orban. Trump and Orban have been buddies ever since. Trump has embraced Boris Johnson and spoken favourably of many other authoritarian leaders across the world. He has berated the then prime minister of the UK Theresa May and the chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel in public. This time round, Orban,  the Slovenian Prime Minister and Polish President have indicated their support. 

While the State Department under Obama had little influence over developments in Hungary, the moral force of their statements were important and would be important in countries like Poland that seek American approval and support against their Russian neighbours. A new president who spoke up against the destruction of media freedom, the attacks on judicial independence and the rule of law could be very influential and persuasive in a future Polish election.

We will have to wait and see. There are many factors that could be decisive in the forthcoming election, but EU relations will not be top of the concerns of US voters. Relations with Europe will be low on that list. But if there is a new president who wants to fight climate change, who supports global action against the pandemic, believes in liberal democracy, sees the strength in multilateralism – but recognises the need for reform, this will already be a great result for the European Union. America can still be a shining city on the hill.

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