BERLIN – Major European leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief when it became clear that Joe Biden would actually take over as president of the United States. But the continent is not about to act as if the past four years didn’t happen. The European Union is seeking to be less dependent on, and less deferential to, Washington than it has ever been before. The idea that Europe should pursue a fundamental shift in transatlantic relations predates Trump, but his administration — by attacking allies, tearing up agreements, and threatening democracy itself — helped convince many more Europeans that it is a good one. Europe now sees the United States as a relatively unreliable friend and a diminished power and therefore wants to create some distance and set its own geopolitical priorities.
After Biden’s inauguration, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most important politician on the continent, warned that Biden should expect “arguments.” The number two in the E.U., French President Emmanuel Macron, reportedly told Biden that he favored “strategic autonomy” — the preferred term for a project which has long had the French as its most vocal proponents — in a friendly phone call. Also in January, Josep Borrell, the closest thing that the European Union has to a foreign minister, wrote that polling indicates a majority of people here now believe that “even under President Biden, the U.S. will be mostly consumed with healing internal divisions and will have little capacity or will to help solve global problems.”
The first concrete example of Europe actually exercising some kind of strategic autonomy was the decision, made in Brussels in the final days of 2020, to go forward with a “Comprehensive Agreement on Investment” with China, despite the Biden team’s request that they wait. This was not a major continental reorientation but was nevertheless controversial. As with everything else in the European Union, the push for independence has its supporters and its critics and would only ever happen in a halting, gradual manner, as the Union tests the waters and builds consensus. In addition to a slightly different approach to Beijing, analysts and policymakers here identify a few possible features of the putative distancing: Europe would take on increased military responsibility, especially close to home; Brussels is likely to be more critical of the power of big U.S. tech companies; and, finally, the continent will try to address its perceived vulnerabilities, whether to global pandemics or even sanctions imposed by Washington.
As slight as the differences between the E.U. and the United States may be at the moment, this means a fundamental reconfiguration of the European project, wrote Zaki Laïdi, a French political scientist now working as a senior advisor to Borrell. “Originally the idea of building a European power was not in the cards. The real geopolitical actors were either individual nation-states or the protector, which was the U.S. Why has this changed? Because the world has changed,” Laïdi said. In the years following World War II, the U.S. accounted for nearly half of global GDP, and geopolitically the world was clearly divided into two camps, led from Washington and Moscow. Now U.S. GDP is less than 20 percent of global GDP, and the European share is declining too, making realistic multilateral engagement necessary. “Trump has simply revealed to Europe the truth — the United States cannot commit itself forever if Europe does not take more care of its own interests.”
During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh pointed out that the real problem for American superpower status is not something Biden can fix. After Trump, the United States would be seen as an unpredictable partner. Any agreement made with Washington, any carefully constructed global endeavor, might simply be thrown in the trash in four years time if the administration changes. So what good are they, really? Even those who firmly believe that U.S. hegemony has provided public benefits to the rest of the world recognize that this depended to a large extent on consistency. “A fickle America cannot lead the world,” Ganesh wrote.
On the question of China, European analysts and policy-makers stress that the issue is not simply whether to be more or less friendly with Beijing than Washington but the need to develop their own, multilayered approach to the world’s rising power. According to the current thinking, the European Union needs to cooperate with China on climate change, will inevitably compete with the country on economics and trade, and characterizes the world’s most populous country as a systemic rival — meaning that Western liberal values and human rights need to be defended in the most effective way possible. But in a policy paper for the Jacques Delors Centre at the Hertie School in Berlin, Anna Stahl takes as an obvious starting point that Europe seeks to “avoid getting caught up in Sino-American great power rivalry.” Stahl told me that more than a few Europeans suspected in recent years that the U.S. was motivated more by a desire to confront China than a sincere concern for human rights, considering the nature of the Trump administration. She said that European leaders care deeply about robust regulations on technology companies, while the perception here is that the Biden administration will take the side of Silicon Valley. The events of January 6 served as a further shock, she said. “It showed how fragile democracy can be, not just in the United States but here as well. And one lesson from that could be, in addition to the fact that the U.S. is divided, that we need to focus more on European solidarity.”
As with most things concerning U.S. politics, Vladimir Putin hangs over these conversations. When making her remarks, Chancellor Merkel brought up differences in opinion between Joe Biden and herself regarding Russia. Back in 2015, she opposed sending weapons to Ukraine, failing to convince then-Vice-President Biden, who was the Obama administration’s “point person” on the country. Now Germany is moving forward with Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that will bring Russian gas directly to Europe, despite the imposition of U.S. sanctions. Berlin sees this as an unacceptable intervention into domestic affairs. Last year, GOP Senators Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, and Marco Rubio outraged Germans by threatening “crushing legal and economic sanctions” on a state-owned company here, but it is not just a Republican issue. Biden is against the pipeline as well. Europe’s stance towards Russia is also a source of division on the continent, with Poland as one of the loudest and most vocal critics of Nord Stream 2, as well as strategic autonomy. “The sanctions were very well-received in Poland,” said Mateusz Piotrowski, an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. He said that some of the other countries seen as most opposed to strategic autonomy — the Baltic states — also had historically rooted aversions to Russian (and German) power. “If strategic autonomy means developing defense capabilities, then great. But if it means moving away from NATO and the United States, this is when we become more worried.”
History also complicates French relationships with the regions where Europe may take a more active role, to say the least. As president, Emmanuel Macron has called colonialism in Africa a “grave mistake,” while refusing to apologize for abuses during the Algerian war of independence and remaining very active in places like Mali and Lebanon. France feels more comfortable than Germany acting as a global power because of the outcome of World War II (among other reasons), says Michel Duclos, special advisor for geopolitics at the Institute Montaigne and former French ambassador to Syria. He told me that it was not only the Trump administration but the Obama administration as well that led many Europeans to look for a way to reshape the Transatlantic Alliance. Syria, Libya, and Ukraine remained various sore spots in Europe after the departure of the 44th president. But whatever the way forward, the idea of “bringing normal back,” he wrote, simply “does not make much sense.”