Europe breathes sigh of relief for future of US relations

Europe breathed a sigh of relief at Joe Biden’s victory, as hopes grew that it would usher in a new era of transatlantic friendship, goodwill and co-operation after the turbulence and tensions of the Trump era.

“There’s a good chance now for a real revival of multilateralism,” Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister and deputy chancellor, told the Financial Times. “We have so many challenges facing us, but we can deal with them much more successfully with a President Biden.”

The defeat of Donald Trump removes a leader who unleashed trade wars on allies, undermined international institutions and called Nato into question, deeply unnerving Europe and destabilising transatlantic ties.

The hope is that relations between Europe and the US will now return to their pre-Trump state. “Undoubtedly it’s going to introduce more rationality into our relationship,” said one senior European official.

“We will deal with each other once again on the basis of common sense,” said Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.

But those expecting a full-scale revival of the old US-European alliance might be disappointed. Some cautioned that even under a Biden presidency, Europe will never occupy the place it held in American hearts in the Cold War era, as Washington engages more with Asia and steps up its efforts to contain China.

“Let’s not be naive,” said Roland Lescure, an MP for Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party. “The centre of gravity for the US has moved from Europe towards Asia since Barack Obama, and that won’t go into reverse.”

Europe is hoping Mr Biden will fulfil his pre-election pledge to return the US to the Paris climate change accord and the nuclear deal with Iran. But concerns have also surfaced that he will be hamstrung by a Republican-controlled Senate which will continue to demand a say in foreign policy.

“Biden will have to govern a country that is deeply divided, socially and politically . . . and where he lacks the broad political basis needed to push his policies,” said Johann Wadephul, a senior MP in Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party. “That will have consequences for America’s capacity to act in all areas of foreign policy.”

Germany has the most to gain from a change in the White House. Angela Merkel has been Mr Trump’s favourite punchbag, attacked for everything from Germany’s current-account surplus to its relatively low defence spending and its support for Nord Stream 2. The pipeline will bring Russian gas directly to Europe across the Baltic Sea, which the US said will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. The president also caused consternation in Berlin in July by announcing plans to pull almost 12,000 troops from military bases across Germany.

But Germans are not celebrating just yet. Berlin’s failure to honour its pledge to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defence means it remains vulnerable to US pressure on the issue. “We are not fulfilling this obligation, and it’s not foreseeable that we will in the future, either,” said Mr Wadephul. “I see no political majority prepared to meet this goal in an expeditious way.”

One of the most neuralgic issues in US-German relations — the US sanctions against Nord Stream 2 — is also unlikely to go away. The measures, which Berlin perceives as highly improper interference in its domestic affairs, enjoy broad, cross-party support in the US Congress.

On trade, allies in Europe now expect a more collaborative approach. But conflicts on the issue could nevertheless continue to flare up, said David McAllister, chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, “because the Democrats, too, are protectionist”.

Europeans also expect a Biden administration to continue to pressure Europe to do more to counter China, particularly in electronic security.

“Biden will if anything be more demanding of Europe, because — unlike Trump — he will want to confront China together with the EU, in a co-ordinated fashion,” said Nils Schmid, foreign affairs spokesman for the German Social Democrats.

For all those reasons, many in Europe believe the EU should not take rapid improvement in US ties for granted. The priority should be to continue along its path of gradually reducing reliance on America.

“The EU still has to strengthen its strategic autonomy,” Mr McAllister said. “That means we have to work out how we can defend our interests and values in the world . . . how we can become more independent.”

One bright spot for Europe’s political establishment is the effect of Mr Trump’s defeat on the continent’s populists, such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Mr Salvini, who remains one of Italy’s most popular politicians, has been a vocal supporter of Mr Trump. Electoral defeat “represents a setback for the populist political strategy that Salvini wanted to embody”, said Gianluca Passarelli, professor of political science at Sapienza university in Rome.

“The most immediate consequence is a form of isolation for Salvini and other populists who aligned themselves with a losing political line in this historical phase,” Mr Passarelli added.

Yet others were less sanguine that the spectre of populism will now be banished for good from European and US politics.

“Trump has been defeated, but Trumpism survives Trump,” said the senior European official. “That’s the important lesson of this election: that kind of nationalism is not going to disappear.”

Additional reporting by Victor Mallet, Davide Ghiglione, Arthur Beesley, Michael Peel

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