Politics & Society

A Transatlantic To-Do List

Assessing Year One of the Biden Administration

In our latest B|Brief, Sara Leming examines the transatlantic relationship one year after the European Commission released, “A new EU-U.S. agenda for global change”, which provided a “to-do” list for the Biden administration to follow for a reinvigorated EU-US relationship.

During the Trump administration, the transatlantic relationship plummeted to what many considered rock bottom. It was questioned whether the longstanding alliance based on shared history, values, and common interests could be repaired, even under a new administration. Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November 2020 brought renewed optimism to both sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans were quick to engage with the incoming Biden administration, and on December 2, 2020, the European Commission released, “A new EU-U.S. agenda for global change,” which described the U.S. and European Union (EU) alliance as a partnership in need of maintenance and renewal. In essence, the document is a “to-do” list from the EU to the Biden administration, with step-by-step instructions for launching a reinvigorated transatlantic alliance. It cites four key areas that could significantly benefit from EU-U.S. cooperation, including COVID-19 vaccine distribution, climate change, technology and trade barriers, and the future of democracy around the world.

Following his inauguration in January 2021, U.S. President Biden received a warm welcome from many traditional American allies, and perhaps the warmest welcome of all was from the EU. Shortly after taking office, Biden demonstrated his intention to improve transatlantic relations by prioritizing calls with European leaders and nominating Antony Blinken, a committed transatlanticist, as secretary of state. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Biden declared, “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.” In June 2021, Biden’s first foreign trip was to Brussels for an EU-U.S. summit. EU leaders greeted Biden as an old friend, and in his first official meeting with Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron declared, “It is great to have a U.S. president that is part of the club.”

Despite all the positive buzz among European leaders and enthusiasm for a reinvigorated transatlantic relationship, as Biden set off to Rome to attend the G-20 summit only a few months later, headlines such as “Biden seeks to ease tensions with Europe” and “Allies wonder if America is truly back” dominated the news cycle. A year after the European Commission’s proposal to revitalize EU-U.S. relations was published, has the Biden administration lived up to the expectations of its most strategic and important ally? Or did the Biden administration and the EU simply enjoy a short honeymoon period?

Judging from the European Commission’s checklist, the United States has made significant progress. In the section, “Working together for a healthier world” the EU described a dire need for global cooperation and U.S. leadership on the Covid-19 pandemic. On day one the Biden administration announced that the United States would rejoin the World Health Organization and has become a top contributor of vaccines to the COVAX facility.

In the section, “Working together to protect our planet and prosperity” the EU welcomed the announcement that the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement and asked the Biden administration to affirm a shared commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition to agreeing to the asks from the EU, the Biden administration increased its ambition to slash greenhouse emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030, reaffirmed the role of the EU-U.S. Energy Council, and pledged to work toward a transatlantic green tech alliance with the EU.

In the section, “Working together on technology, trade, and standards” the EU invited the United States to create a joint tech agenda and work to ease bilateral trade irritants. Although most of these challenges remain outstanding, such as how to navigate differences regarding big tech companies and data flows, the two sides have made great strides. For example, the Trade and Technology Council (TTC), launched in June 2021, aims to foster high-level cooperation in areas such as artificial intelligence, global supply chains, and technology standards. The creation of the TTC exemplifies the ambition of the United States to collaborate with the EU to address mutual concerns about digital technology and competitors such as China. In addition, in October at the G-20 summit Biden announced that his administration would lift tariffs on steel and aluminum, only months after U.S. and EU officials reached a deal to end the 17-year-long Boeing and Airbus dispute. Together these two agreements eliminated significant trade irritants between the United States and the EU.

Lastly, in the section, “Working together towards a safer, more prosperous and more democratic world” the EU called on the United States to work with it to strengthen democracy worldwide. While this is a much less tangible area to evaluate, on December 9 and 10 Biden will host the first part of his virtual Summit for Democracy, which will focus on defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. In retrospect and given the Biden administration’s short time in office, the deep polarization within U.S. politics, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration has generally followed the guiding principles outlined by the EU.

If the Biden administration has checked off core items of this to-do list and demonstrated initiative, then what is the cause for the significant drop in positive momentum from the EU? First, while the Biden administration may be much more aligned with the EU than previous U.S. administrations the EU is still unsure if the United States will be a reliable partner in the long term. Although Biden has assured the world that “America is back,” those in Brussels understand that a new administration in 2025 could undo and reverse Biden’s executive efforts.

Second, the transatlantic relationship has faced some unexpected diplomatic and geopolitical tension recently, from the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was seen by many global leaders as a failure to coordinate with NATO allies, to Biden’s diplomatic faux pas with Macron over the AUKUS deal, which prompted the French to recall their ambassador to the United States and sent tensions skyrocketing. Biden himself said his administration had been “clumsy” with the deal and extended an olive branch to France. Although the situation has de-escalated, other overarching issues remain, such as the European perspective that there is a lack of communication between Washington and Brussels and the U.S. shift of interests from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region. While neither is necessarily a surprise, they make EU leaders question to what extent the Biden administration values the EU as its top ally and partner for global change.

While U.S.-EU relations have vastly improved in the first year of the Biden administration, reinventing the transatlantic relationship will be inherently more complex than completing a to-do list and, like any relationship, will require communication and mutual trust. Perhaps Macron’s remarks to Biden at the G7 summit sum up what the EU is truly looking for from the U.S., "I think that what you demonstrate is that leadership is partnership, and we do appreciate it, and I think we can deliver great things for that.”

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Sara Leming

Research Analyst
Bertelsmann Foundation