There may be toasted marshmallows and firepits awaiting President Joe Biden and his fellow leaders on the beaches of Cornwall during this weekend’s G-7 leaders summit, but don’t expect them to be singing “Kumbaya.”
With the Biden administration crowing that “America is back” and looking to bask in applause for resetting the transatlantic relationship onto a positive path, European leaders aren’t quite ready to start clapping. They’re expecting proof that America is in it for the long haul, and are already steeling themselves for Washington’s next departure from the uneasy transatlantic marriage.
POLITICO interviewed more than a dozen prime ministers, ministers, diplomats and other officials to find out what they think about Biden and his team, and where they see Europe as fitting into the new administration’s priorities. The recurring theme: concern about perceived gaps between the administration’s rhetoric and its actions toward Europe.
Take for example Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who will meet bilaterally with Biden on June 15. In an interview, De Croo outlined his frustration with Biden’s invocation of the Defense Production Act to prioritize domestic manufacturing of vaccines.
Belgium is home to Pfizer’s biggest plant. Overall, Belgium produces “probably 20 times as much vaccine as we use,” — in De Croo’s estimation, about half of it exported outside the EU. But production has been slowed by Biden’s policy, which De Croo labeled as “America First for vaccines.” He said “there’s no doubt” global vaccine production is lower as a result.
Biden’s new plan to distribute 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to countries in need doesn’t alter Belgium’s sense of frustration.
De Croo supports vaccine-sharing, but was not consulted on Biden’s new policy, which will see all 500 million doses made in Michigan, Missouri, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Kansas. The decision risks keeping Belgium’s vaccine plants — including Pfizer’s — starved of the raw materials they need to maintain usual production levels.
De Croo said the Trump era has prepared Europe to withstand a more protectionist America. “Trump stripped Europe of its naivete: that idea that you could always count on the United States. That idea is gone,” De Croo said. He said a more “self-aware” Europe treats transatlantic cooperation as “Plan A,” while hedging that it “cannot expect that the United States will always be a partner.”
If those sentiments are a long way from the trans-Atlanticist image that Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are laboring to project, they’re also shared by significant minorities in all nine European countries surveyed in April by the German Marshall Fund, which for the first time asked respondents whether they consider the U.S. to be a reliable partner. While 76 percent of Poles think of America as a reliable partner, that shrinks to 51 percent in Germany. The Obama-mania that Europeans experienced has not been matched by a similar Biden effect.
Allies did, however, offer Biden an extended honeymoon when he assumed office — aware that America’s deep domestic problems required attention and political capital.
But five months into Biden’s term, and with an awareness that the president might lose room to maneuver after the 2022 midterm elections, European capitals are now looking for the U.S. to “walk the talk” on his promises of a renewed transatlantic relationship, European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told the European Parliament on Wednesday.
When it comes to policy, “the rhetoric is aligned, but the approaches are not,” said Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In key areas such as pricing carbon emissions and regulating technology, “the EU and the U.S. are still far apart” on policy approaches, Brattberg said, though a new EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council, to be launched June 15 may help tech policies converge.
Complaints about the Biden administration range from French frustration at the ban on European visitors to the U.S. to Germany’s annoyance at Americans meddling in its pet infrastructure project: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
“We expect the U.S. to open up to vaccinated EU travelers,” said a senior French diplomat, noting that “Europe is opening up to fully vaccinated U.S. travelers.” The diplomat complained that “until now exemptions to the U.S. restrictions were almost impossible to obtain, even for major CEOs or for genuine humanitarian (compassionate) reasons, while the EU was more flexible for exemptions.”
Frustration is mounting on trade issues. Dombrovskis told the European Parliament that it’s time for the U.S. to lift the Trump-era steel and aluminum tariffs — implemented under the guise of national security reasons, but which poisoned transatlantic relations.
Dombrovskis said the EU has suspended a planned automatic doubling of retaliatory tariffs as “a clear signal to the U.S. of our willingness to solve this issue in a fair and balanced way,” and that now the bloc expects a U.S. gesture.
Back in March, Brussels and Washington agreed to a ceasefire in a separate long-standing Airbus-Boeing trade dispute, but have been unable to reach a permanent solution.
In some cases, European officials simply have bruised egos. Having carried the torch for multilateralism during the Trump years, and having made the first serious policy push toward net-zero emissions and taxing digital giants — they’re frustrated to see presidential climate envoy John Kerry capture global headlines for his climate diplomacy, and annoyed that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has sealed a G-7 deal on a global minimum corporate tax rate before the EU achieves internal consensus on the matter.
Officials worry that without stricter, binding domestic measures on climate caps, all the good rhetoric is devalued. “It’s easy to put forward climate goals, but without linking them to financial consequences via an emissions trading system, what does the goal mean?” said a senior EU official, who requested anonymity. “In the EU, countries can be fined for not meeting their climate goals. Biden is committed to multilateralism, but will they put their money where their mouth is?”
When it comes to finalizing a 15 percent global floor for corporate tax, Europe is the problem. Several governments with rock-bottom corporate tax rates today, including Hungary, Cyprus and Ireland — Biden’s ancestral home and notionally America’s strongest ally inside the EU — are resistant to the G-7 plan. Ireland remains wedded to its 12.5 corporate tax rate, and for Paschal Donohoe, Ireland’s finance minister, the fight is far from over.
Play nice with friends
But some European and American former officials believe it’s time for Europe to get out of its comfort zone of criticizing Washington and embrace pragmatic cooperation with Biden.
Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, said Biden has laid out a clear path for engagement. “As always, Europeans become edgy when confronted with a proactive U.S.,” he said. Former President Donald Trump paradoxically let Europeans operate in their comfort zone: “lecturing the Americans.” Now Europe needs to show where it wants to take the relationship: “Biden’s upcoming trip is an assist to Europe. It’s very much up to us to catch it,” he said.
Former Ambassador Dan Baer, who served as the Obama administration’s envoy to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, agrees: “The question to Europe is: Now that you have someone who wants to do real business with you, can you put someone across the table to do the business?”
“This ‘how can we trust you’ line is just an excuse for not diving in,” Baer said, adding that European leaders who held their nose up at Trump “need to show that cooperation can pay dividends.”
“Sure Trump or Trumpism could come back, but Marine Le Pen could also be France’s next President,” said Stefanini. “If Truman had thought ‘what if Hitlerism comes back,’ the Marshall Plan never would have happened” in the aftermath of World War II, he added.
Overall, European officials expressed gratitude that Biden’s first foreign trip is centered on a string of European summits, and diplomats posted to Washington said they enjoy the return of a stable policy process in Washington.
“In Sweden, we like predictability and we have it again. Under Trump when we talked to one person at one level, it could be overruled an hour later by someone else,” said a senior Swedish diplomat.
Getting to grips with China
Predictable or not, it hasn’t escaped notice that Biden is yet to invest in European diplomatic staffing: The Indo-Pacific team is the National Security Council’s largest policy unit, and Europe’s American ambassador residences remain empty.
Those choices in Washington have sharpened awareness in European capitals that the strength of their relationship with Biden will significantly depend on how much they cooperate with the administration’s efforts to curb China.
But London and Brussels are still struggling to settle on their own approaches to China, let alone coordinate with Washington.
Brussels undermined its credibility in Washington by rushing to sign an investment deal with Beijing — which quickly collapsed — in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration. Meanwhile, London bounces between echoing American concerns and flattering Beijing. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described himself as “fervently Sinophile” in February, and chose not to match a U.S. declaration of a Uyghur genocide.
A new “Atlantic Charter” launched by Biden and Johnson on Thursday would have the greatest impact if it focused on curbing China in a post-Covid world order, said Tom Tugendhat, chair of the U.K. House of Commons foreign affairs committee. “The original Atlantic Charter eventually brought in 26 countries: a very clear statement of a new world order for the post-war era. Churchill’s genius was bringing Europe and America together to defeat totalitarianism. That’s the bar to clear,” he said.
This round of summits will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last as Europe’s longest-serving leader. With the popularity of Italy’s Mario Draghi and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga nosediving, and France’s Emmanuel Macron facing a tough battle for reelection in 2022, Biden may find himself facing not only enduring skepticism of America among allies, but a new generation of leaders with whom he lacks deep relationships at the next G-7 summit.
As Germany looks inward to determine its post-Merkel future, Jana Puglierin, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, worries that miscommunication between Berlin and Washington will make messy politics around the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline even messier.
“Many in Berlin do not understand that the American decision to take the pressure off Germany (by waiving sanctions) comes with a price tag, that it’s now up to Germany to make concessions to the Biden administration,” Puglierin said. “There is a mistaken impression here that the issue is not that important to Joe Biden. I don’t think it’s clear to many pipeline supporters in Berlin how much the issue is causing disgruntlement in D.C.,” she added.
With even America’s closest allies willing to rock the boat on Biden’s first foreign trip, it’s a reminder that the transatlantic alliance was never easy — and never will be.
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