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Joe Biden: the view from Europe


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It is hard to exaggerate how relieved most Europeans were by the time of Joe Biden’s inauguration. Four years of waking up to crazy news out of the US were finally over. America duly rejoined the World Health Organization, the Paris climate accords and the family of civilised, predictable nations.

Biden’s virtual coming out in Europe last month won rapturous reviews as he told the Munich Security Conference: “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back.” German chancellor Angela Merkel observed that “the prospects for multilateralism are much better this year than they were two years ago, and that has a lot to do with Joe Biden”. And Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, tweeted “Welcome back #America”.

Then, when Biden secured congressional approval of his $1.9tn stimulus package in early March, share prices in Europe hit their highest levels since the start of the pandemic. The rapid action plus his new focus on infrastructure are sparking admiration, even jealousy in Europe, where the EU is still working out how to spend its €750bn pandemic recovery fund.

But last week leaders in Europe and the UK were handed stark reminders that they cannot always expect Biden to see things their way nor can they go back to blindly following America’s lead, particularly when it comes to China and Russia.

Amid Donald Trump’s bluster, the EU and UK had already started groping toward a “third way” in their approach to China, lest they become proverbial grass that gets trampled when the elephants fight. Indeed, the EU irked the Biden team over the winter by pushing through an investment deal with China before he took office.

Last week’s fiery meeting in Alaska between Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, only underscored the fact that Washington-Beijing tensions are here to stay. 

French president Emmanuel Macron is already making the case for continuing an independent approach. He warned in February that the US and Europe joining together against China would create “the highest possible” risk of conflict.

Germany’s Angela Merkel, meanwhile, is among those most likely to be unsettled by Biden’s new approach to Russia. First, the US president agreed with a television interviewer that Vladimir Putin is “a killer”, prompting Moscow to recall its ambassador from Washington. Then, Blinken condemned the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, saying it would “divide Europe and weaken European energy security”.

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That’s not going to go down well in Berlin, which supports the pipeline. It would bring gas directly from Russia to Germany, avoiding the current network that runs through Ukraine. Merkel’s government had been hoping Biden would be willing to scale back the sanctions that Congress approved last year. Instead, Blinken warned companies working on the project to quit immediately or face US sanctions.

For NS2 supporters, the strong words will be doubly disappointing because they appeared to have more to do with US politics than the merits of NS2. Shortly after Blinken spoke, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who had been blocking William Burns’ nomination to be CIA director until he was reassured about the sanctions regime, released his hold and Burns was confirmed.

Europe’s sense that the US remains a somewhat unreliable partner is also affecting its approach to trade negotiations. “We are all aware of the political fragility of the situation in the US,” Ignacio Garcia Bercero, director of the European Commission’s trade arm, said at a Peterson Institute event on Friday. “We need to have the tools to defend ourselves in case we have a return to the unpleasant situation of the last four years.” 

In London, where I am based, Biden’s biggest impact has been on relations with the Republic of Ireland. The UK and EU are still scrapping over the implementation of their Brexit deal and one of the continuing tensions is over Northern Ireland, which is supposed to have an open border with the Irish Republic.

Public attention has been mesmerised by signs that Biden might care more for Ireland than the UK. A post-election encounter between Biden and British public television went viral: asked for a “quick word for the BBC”, Biden responded “I’m Irish”. More recently, Biden’s decision last week to light up a White House fountain in green for St Patrick’s day and quote Irish poet Seamus Heaney drew widespread coverage.

The Irish have been quick to press their advantage: Prime Minister Micheál Martin used his St Patrick’s day meeting with Biden to press home his demand that the UK and EU “stand by what has been agreed” for Northern Ireland.

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What do you think Ed, do Biden’s Irish roots change what is always referred to in London as the “special relationship” between the UK and US? And where do you see the EU-US relationship going?

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Edward Luce responds

That’s a good question Brooke. For sure, Biden feels a deep affinity for Ireland — and always has. Irishness seems to matter more to Biden than it did to John F Kennedy. I’d also contend that Biden is the first practising Catholic to occupy the White House, though that point could be argued.

But a lot of Biden’s Irishness is for domestic consumption. As you described in your note, Biden is already encountering European scepticism on his larger agenda of forging a common position on China and Russia. The Germans are returning to their Bismarckian roots of seeking to balance and placate east and west. The French are reverting to ideas of European autonomy. Only the British, as history would also indicate, appear to be fully on board with Biden’s values-based foreign policy. Though Ireland is a close friend to the US, and is held dear in Biden’s heart, it can never be a serious military or intelligence partner to America. I doubt Ireland would want to join Nato any time soon. 

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Boris Johnson could still screw things up. If the British government continues to play games with the Good Friday Agreement — blaming Brussels for unilateral decisions it has taken on border controls for goods — the mood on Capitol Hill could quickly turn sour. That would jeopardise what little chance Johnson may have of securing a UK-US trade deal. Should Johnson pull back, however, Britain is well placed to serve as Washington’s most reliable transatlantic partner on a number of fronts. Ultimately that will weigh far more heavily with Biden’s foreign policy team than any distaste he might feel for Johnson’s style of politics.

Ireland, meanwhile, must be wary of mistaking Biden’s emotional and cultural warmth as a blank cheque to continue facilitating offshore tax avoidance by US companies, particularly in Big Tech. Biden wants to close this down and Ireland is part of the problem. At some point that issue will probably come to a head. 

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘Awaking to a detoxified Washington’:
“Bull’s eye on the description of Biden. Our blood pressure has dropped 10 points, I sleep better, don’t have to listen to every version of ‘Amazing Grace’ in order to regain sanity and no longer get snappy with my wife of 44 years. And Biden surrounds himself with competence. We are back to debating policy rather than ethics and morality. What a concept!” — Wayne Bazzle, Dallas, Texas

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Brooke on brooke.masters@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @brookeamasters and @EdwardGLuce. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter.





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