Senior European Union officials warned this week that the election of Joe Biden will not bring an immediate return to the trusting partnership between Europe and the U.S. that existed prior to 2016.
“You will never rewind history,” the E.U.’s Vice President and foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told TIME in a Nov. 16 interview. Four years of President Donald Trump, who labeled the bloc a “foe” and has slapped tariffs on European goods, has left Europeans with a lasting sense that U.S. support is not necessarily dependable, he says. “Trump has been a kind of awakening. And I think we should stay awake,” Borrell says. “We cannot say ‘oh Trump is no longer there, we can go back to our previous state of mind.’”
Almost all the 27 E.U. leaders celebrated Biden’s win with most publicly sending messages of goodwill. But behind the scenes, in recent days E.U. officials have also warned of the need to remain cautious about the U.S., given that Trump’s trenchant nationalist views clearly have strong support among Americans—and that those views could make a comeback in the next presidential election in 2024.
“What led to the election of Donald Trump four years ago remains,” Clément Beaune, French Minister of State for European Affairs said last Friday at the Paris Peace Forum, a virtual meeting of world leaders, diplomats and officials. “This kind of discomfort of globalization, this fear of China, this concern about multilateralism, remain.”
Borrell believes divisions between the U.S. and Europe could come to a head early in Biden’s presidency, over two crucial foreign-policy issues: Iran and China.
Biden has said he will rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which involved 12 years of negotiations with the U.S., the E.U., the United Nations, Russia and China. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018, effectively unraveling the entire agreement. The U.S. then imposed stiff sanctions, shutting off Iran’s oil exports—its economic lifeblood—and threatening to block any company which had investments in Iran from doing business in the U.S. That threat forced huge European corporations, including French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroen and energy giant Total, to scrap major investments in Iran.
Despite Biden’s commitment to the Iran nuclear deal, Borrell says that reviving it now will not be easy — not least because the signatories could remain wary about a future U.S. President canceling it again. Since Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, Iran has ramped up its nuclear program, which will make it difficult for the Biden administration to lift U.S. sanctions, something that Iran would need as a precondition to again halting its uranium enrichment program. “This deal is not only a nuclear deal,” Borrell says. “It is also an economic deal, and Iran is expecting to have some exchange for stopping its nuclear program.”
In a note to investors on Tuesday, political risk consultancy firm the Eurasia Group also says Biden could find it difficult to end U.S. sanctions. “He [Biden] will almost certainly not do so while Iran remains in violation of key provisions of the nuclear accord,” the note says. The deal will now need fresh U.S. negotiations convened by the E.U., the group said, and initial talks “could happen almost immediately after Biden’s inauguration.” Those talks are urgent, Borrell says. “The deal is the only way of keeping Iran from being a nuclear power,” he says. “I don’t think there is another solution.”
China’s rocketing global clout is the second potential source of conflict that could continue between the U.S. and the E.U. Borrell and other E.U. officials believe China’s rivalry with the U.S. to be the world’s main economic powerhouse will likely dominate Biden’s foreign policy. “We do not want to be in the middle of a trade battle between the U.S. and China, where we are going to pay the consequences,” Borrell says.
That, increasingly, was the situation under Trump, whose tariffs against China, and vociferous anti-China talk, was at odds with the E.U.’s extensive trade relations with Beijing. Both Italy and Hungary have signed deals under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and China owns Greece’s main port of Piraeus, one of Europe’s main shipping hubs.
However, Borrell says the U.S. and Europe are largely united on China, though not 100% aligned. “We are both liberal democracies and market economies, but that does not mean our interests always coincide,” he says. “And it does not mean that we have to follow blindly what Americans decide to do, with respect to China.”
Forging its own path will require massive investment by the E.U., however—a point that Trump made repeatedly in accusing Europe of freeloading off U.S. military aid. E.U. officials in some ways agree, saying that Trump forced European leaders to rethink dependence on the U.S., and to focus on securing more autonomy, especially in relation to defense in areas that impact Europe far more than the U.S., such as North Africa and Russia.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has led the push for greater European integration, acknowledged this reality on Nov. 16 in an interview with Paris-Brussels think tank, the Geopolitical Research Group. “I am sure of one thing: We are not the United States of America,” he said. “It is therefore not tenable that our international policy should be dependent on [the U.S.] or be trailing behind it… We owe it to our citizens not to depend on others.”
Borrell echoed this point. “Until now we have been in a situation where the Europeans were asking the U.S. to provide for their security,” he says. “Now we have to be ready to provide for our own security.” That readiness is crucial, he says, no matter who resides in the White House.
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