Transatlantic Take

Great Optimism in the EU and NATO as Brussels Looks to Biden

4 min read
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After years of transatlantic stress, officials and observers in Brussels believe that a Biden administration holds the prospect of profound change in style and policy. There will continue to be areas of disagreement.

After years of transatlantic stress, officials and observers in Brussels believe that a Biden administration holds the prospect of profound change in style and policy. There will continue to be areas of disagreement. But the overall approach from Washington is sure to be more engaging and closer to mainstream European policy preferences. From economics to security, Europe values predictability in U.S. leadership, something that has been in remarkably short supply under the Trump administration.

The anticipated shift is likely to be most profound from the perspective of the EU and its institutions. Among member states, there was always a spectrum of views about Donald Trump. The outgoing administration’s approach enjoyed a degree of support in right-wing and nationalist circles, including several governments in Central and Eastern Europe. For some, this was a matter of ideology. For others it was a cooler geopolitical calculus. In general, however, the Trump administration was derided for its brash unilateral style as much as its policy choices, most of which were at odds with EU preferences. The list of sharp differences ranged from climate policy to trade, from Iran to the World Health Organization.

Above all, Trump and his key advisors were seen as dismissive of, or even opposed to, the idea of the EU itself. For them, international politics seemed to be about nation states, often individual leaders—some seen positively, most seen negatively. The traditional U.S. attachment to the “European project” had become the preserve of a foreign policy elite with little influence on Trump and his circle. A Biden administration should spell a return to the traditional balance in transatlantic relations, with the EU itself taken seriously again alongside relations with France, Germany, and others.

On substance, there is a realization that it may not all be smooth sailing across the Atlantic. Trade and digital policy are widely assumed to be the most challenging areas. Indeed, there is some concern that Biden may find it difficult to move away from the protectionist stance that has taken hold in recent years, against the backdrop of similar pressures in Europe and elsewhere. On other fronts, the outlook is for closer consultation and convergence. EU leaders will welcome a U.S. return to the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization. Biden has signaled a desire to bring the United States back into the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran. A Biden administration is assumed to be more interested in and willing to assist with a host of problems on Europe’s periphery, from Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean.

In some respects, NATO was one of the areas least affected by Trump’s approach to the world. The U.S. military presence in Europe has grown modestly but steadily; a trend that began under President Barack Obama. U.S. complaints about defense burden-sharing were nothing new, even if the style was more abrasive. But from the start, Trump spread anxiety about the solidity of the U.S. commitment to European defense. It never quite came to a disavowal of Article V, and Trump would have faced a very tough bipartisan battle if he ever wished to leave NATO as he hinted on more than one occasion. By contrast, it is assumed that a Biden administration would put NATO back at the core of U.S. strategy. In policy terms, the emphasis on increased European defense spending will surely continue. There will be a tougher and more predictable line on Russia, coupled with an interest in new arms-control arrangements. Biden is a well-known figure in NATO circles. For the alliance, a Biden administration will be a return to the known world and an energizing element for the institution.

Of course, the general enthusiasm in EU and NATO circles should not obscure some looming, difficult debates. Biden’s foreign and security policy team is likely to include a host of individuals who know Europe well. They will likely pay closer attention to democracy, media freedom, and the rule of law, with all this may imply for relations with Turkey, Hungary, and others. There will be no enthusiasm for Brexit, and new initiatives with the United Kingdom will be far from the top of the agenda. The fashionable interest in European strategic autonomy, spurred by the experience of the Trump years, is unlikely to evaporate. Many in the EU will continue to seek a longer-term hedge against a changeable United States. China will still loom large as a strategic competitor for the United States and Europe. This will inevitably affect EU and NATO interests. The extent to which Washington and Brussels will be on the same page with regard to China remains an open question, although the outlook for transatlantic alignment on this front is surely better with a Biden administration.

There is great hope that President-elect Biden will visit Brussels as one of his first overseas trips. He will find a city eager to confirm that a transatlantic reset is possible.

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.