by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 22
January 2021

Joe Biden’s European conundrum

Can a new president stop the EU and the USA drifting apart?
by Aris Roussinos
Which way Western man? Credit: Getty

Following a peaceful transition of power in the imperial capital yesterday, local rulers are performing their traditional role of ingratiating themselves with the new order and repudiating any connection with the old regime. In Europe, the EU Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Biden for “the inspiring inaugural address and for the offer to cooperate,” promising that “Europe is ready for a fresh start.”

Certainly, on climate change and the Green New Deal, claimed priorities for both the Biden administration and the EU, there is much room for renewed cooperation. Yet in the broader sweep of foreign policy, America and Europe’s interests and worldviews are increasingly divergent, and while it may suit Europe’s spokespeople to blame the rift on Biden’s newly-departed predecessor, holding the alliance together will remain problematic.

A major new survey for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank highlights the divergence. As its summary notes, “majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them.”


Europeans no longer trust America to defend Europe and would express little solidarity with the US if it became involved in a conflict with other great powers… rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China.
- European Council on Foreign Relations

Despite the lavish praise for the incoming Biden administration offered by Europe’s foreign policy commentariat, particularly Germany’s, the recent EU-China trade agreement, hurried through by Merkel before Biden’s inauguration, can be read as a political manifestation of this sentiment. By signing it, the EU has essentially recused itself from an active role in any confrontation between the two superpowers. The Biden administration is also no more likely to look fondly on Germany’s role in the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia than did the Trump administration, guaranteeing another flashpoint in transatlantic relations. Yesterday, Merkel reiterated her support for the pipeline. 

The most important European critic of both strategic autonomy and Nordstream 2 is Poland, a nation firmly Atlanticist in orientation, and hostile to both Russia and China for historic and ideological reasons, yet which hitched its wagon too firmly to the Trump train for comfort. Despite its centrality to the NATO alliance, Poland’s ultra-Conservative Catholic government is a strong rhetorical critic of liberalism whose waning attachment to Western democratic norms causes alarm in liberal American circles. Indeed, the country may soon find itself at odds with a Biden administration keen to reassert the hold of both democracy and liberal values across the empire

Biden has already singled out Poland’s “anti-LGBT zones” for criticism, and his recent remarks that “you see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world… [Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world,” have not been well received in the country

Poland’s leaders will hope, then, that America’s realist desire to maintain its waning strategic hold over Europe will outbalance any liberal idealist urge to export the values of the Democratic Party to the continent’s east: yet whether hard-nosed imperial realpolitik will outcompete America’s growing domestic ideological fervour will depend on the course of events in the turbulent imperial metropole, and not the empire’s eastern marches.

Join the discussion

  • If the EU turns its back on the US, dismissing the role America has played in guaranteeing world trade for the last half century, who’s going to pay to keep the ship lanes open? It’s not going to be China is it?

  • It’s curious the Trump administration downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status, and Biden will reverse that, but the UK doesn’t want to follow suit. I imagine the UK is holding out for something it wants in return – or the US is covertly playing a double game, pressuring the EU via the UK for the China deal.

  • How on earth the EU thinks people are going to take its overtures on European values seriously going forward is a mystery to me.

    I’m surprised anyone took them seriously before. Western talk of human rights has always been hypocritical. One example: NATO attacked Yugoslavia in 1999, with the full support of the EU because it was fighting a counter-insurgency against the KLA in Kosovo with rather less vigour than NATO member Turkey was employing in its own war against the Kurds. Why was Serbia bad but Turkey good? Because Turkey was “one of us” and Serbia was a friend of Russia.

    The Western powers use human rights as a stick to beat people they want to beat for strategic reasons. Then again, if they didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any.

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