Joe Biden’s assumption of the US presidency following the outgoing President Donald Trump’s leadership heralds changes in the policy of the largest Western power. This article aims to analyze the impact of the changing of the guard in Washington on the European Union and its geopolitical, economic, and political consequences. America would like to mobilize European allies to a common containment of China, and will also refer to collective transatlantic values to a greater extent. In the latter case, the influence of the new administration on integration processes may turn out to be particularly pernicious.
The expected rapprochement between the former allies
Joe Biden’s assumption of power in the United States was greeted with enthusiasm in Berlin. The new administration had high hopes to renew alliance ties with Europe. The US treats Germany as its crucial partner since it is of growing importance to the European Union’s policies while also seen as more friendly to America than, for example, French elites. However, the renewal of transatlantic relations will come mainly in rhetoric and gestures. What remains a problem is big structural differences between the two sides of the Atlantic.
For enthusiasts of rapprochement between the US and the EU, the essential thing is the will to rebuild mutual relations after the difficult presidency of Donald Trump. Biden declared the United States’ return to the climate pact and the World Health Organization, which was what the EU had expected. Moreover, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic announced their wish to reform the World Trade Organization. Biden’s presidency also creates a chance for the US to again comply with the agreement with Iran. This, however, will not be easy with Tehran’s violations of the nuclear arrangements and its support for terrorist groups. Nevertheless, it is possible to remove US sanctions from European companies doing business with the ayatollahs’ regime.
The first structural factor that may hamper transatlantic rapprochement is the image of America in Western Europe. Only 26 percent of Germans have a favorable opinion of the US. What is more, they tend to see relations with France more positively. In a survey, Germans were in favor of developing cooperation with Russia and China, while a majority of respondents wished to limit relations with the US. According to a Pew Research Center poll, only a third of Germans felt that the United States respects civil liberties and human rights. Influential journalists regard America as a country having serious trouble with democratic standards and on the verge of civil war. This shows that as far as values are concerned, the German society is increasingly critical of the Atlantic alliance. The Germans also lack confidence in the long-term credibility of America.
The second structural factor is economic differences. These include the years-long dispute over subsidies for Boeing and Airbus. A recent noteworthy moment of this conflict was the increase in tariffs on aircraft-manufacturing parts and wine imported from Europe, a decision made in late December 2020 by one of the US agencies. The new administration in Washington will have to take on the challenge of a $170 billion trade deficit with the EU. With that comes the conflict over US food imports to EU member states as well as other delicate issues. Another factor is disagreements over the taxation of US Internet companies in the EU and other efforts Brussels is making to break their dominance in the bloc’s internal market. Most experts do not believe that it will be possible to return to negotiations on investment and trade partnerships. It is doubtful that Europe will meet the American expectations to decouple technologically the West from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), though the Trump administration managed to discourage many EU countries from using the Chinese-made 5G technology..
It is worth looking at the German EU presidency’s hectic efforts to sign an investment agreement with China as soon as possible. The Germans aspired to open the Chinese market for European cars, especially electric ones, as well as for IT, financial, and health services. They also sought to reduce the forced technology transfer to China – which had previously been a necessary condition to access this market. Another essential goal of the German presidency was attempts to reduce the amounts of Chinese subsidies for domestic companies, or at least to make them more transparent. Nevertheless, Biden’s representatives looked at the haste of Europeans in their negotiations with the utmost concern. Such a rush means that a common transatlantic front aiming to force the PRC to comply with the rules of reciprocity in relations with the West is less likely. What was important for Chinese negotiators were not only economic, but also geopolitical issues. Their goal was to drive a wedge between the EU and the US to prevent them from forming a joint anti-China alliance. Therefore, Beijing decided to make concessions to conclude an agreement with the European Union before Biden’s team took power in Washington. Another factor is that Germany does not want to accept the American sanctions imposed on the Nord Stream gas pipeline and plans to complete its expansion. This problem goes far beyond economic interests.
The third factor causing transatlantic divergences is geopolitics. This aspect is best illustrated with the demand for strategic autonomy that French elites advocated for many years. They believe that the EU should increase its independence from NATO and Washington. For some members of the German elite, this demand is too far-reaching because Europe alone does not have sufficient military capabilities. According to Germany’s defense minister, European defense capabilities development should aim to complement NATO forces and not replace them. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s statement triggered strong opposition from Emmanuel Macron, who considered it to be a historical misinterpretation. Many French and German commentators also contributed to the discussion saying that the United States would gradually reduce its involvement in Europe. They thereby argued that there is a need to build European sovereignty, a separate geopolitical pole having its own potential in key economic and security sectors. What lies behind this strategic thought are mainly German and French benefits, including their industry-related interests. The greatest emanation of Europe’s strategic autonomy is that French and German leaders do not want to support American goals in confrontation with China or Russia, on the contrary, they are interested in developing relations with Beijing and Moscow, at least in the economic field.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin (left), during a meeting on the sidelines of the 11th BRICS Summit. Brasilia, Brazil, November 13, 2019.
The radicals’ offensive
After Donald Trump’s supporters had invaded the US Capitol, the liberal media did not focus on the surprisingly poor security of the Congress and how it should be improved in the future. Instead, they took the opportunity to crack down on Trump and his enthusiasts. By referring to them as terrorists, Joe Biden placed them outside the category of democratic politics. The president’s Twitter and Facebook accounts were deactivated. Trump’s impeachment proceedings started although he already ended the term as U.S. president. It is hard not to see this as an attempt to destroy the political future of both Trump and Trumpism.
Many American sociologists are studying the disappearance of the middle class in the United States, the existence of which – until now – served as the basis of the stability of this democracy. Another factor is the health and economic crises, which have increased radical moods on both sides of the political spectrum. However, the liberal establishment and its associated media did not treat the protests of the left and the right on equal terms. BLM’s or Antifa’s violent street demonstrations got their legitimacy, while Trump’s supporters were dragged through the mire. Biden’s success was due, among other things, to the offensive of the progressive left and its support by the liberal elite, which, to some extent, made the president a hostage to the extremist factions in his party. In consequence, further measures will be taken to stigmatize and exclude right-wing radicals from politics. This, however, will rather deepen internal polarization and destabilization in the greatest superpower of the West. As progressive left-wing demands are more and more often part of Washington’s foreign policy, this might impede the ties between the United States and some of its allies.
Just as Trump’s success radicalized the right in Europe a few years ago, the counteroffensive of Biden and the progressive left will embolden politicians with similar agendas on the Old Continent. European studies point to two critical stages in the development of integration. In the first of them, it was possible to make advances by their decoupling from electoral politics in member states – the process referred to as “permissive consensus” as early as in 1970 . However, it was impossible to permanently depoliticize European affairs given the growing EU’s democratic deficit. The referendums on the European constitution and the euro area crisis led to the “awakening of the sleeping giant,” as Peter Mair put it, and thus a mass interest in integration on the part of voters. This gave rise to the second phase of integration – the politicization of European affairs. Scholars have referred to this phase as “constraining dissensus” because it had a negative impact on the integration process. It was precisely because of the politicization of the migration crisis among voters that it was difficult for politicians to face this problem. At the same time, there was a growing conviction among pro-European elites that conservative and Eurosceptic groups were blocking anti-crisis solutions.
The third stage of integration
In recent years, the European Parliament has become the arena of two outbursts of political emotions referred to as “protest-based politics”. First, we witnessed an anti-European rebellion of groups opposing the current integration line – its centralization and federalization. These factions demanded a return to the “Europe of Homelands” model, understood as an integration that is subsidiary to states and respects weaker EU members’ sovereignty. This was followed by a strong opposition to Euroscepticism, which targeted mainly national, conservative, and Christian Democrat parties.
This is how the third phase of European integration started, described as the response of pro-European elites to the disruption of integration progress. The cure was to be its even greater politicization, or, more precisely, the mobilization of pro-European voters around liberal and left-wing values. In line with the neo-functionalist assumptions the hope was to transfer social loyalty from member states to the EU and Europeanize social identifications. The counteroffensive had a weapon consisting of ideologizing the European project, also by pushing the opponents to the margins of political life in Europe and even excluding them gradually from mainstream politics. This was to be achieved by stigmatizing them as populists and autocrats. According to Frank Schimmelfennig, in the second decade of the 21st century, European actors tried to manage the politicization of European affairs, either by reducing or stimulating it, depending on the situation. However, such strong emotions and political polarization that accompany politicization can easily get out of politicians’ control. This is why the left-wing offensive in Europe may prove dangerous for integration.
According to Michael Zürn, a division between proponents of cosmopolitanism and politicians making references to the superior role of the national community became an axis of political dispute in the EU. Advocates of cosmopolitanism sought to base European integration on universal human rights, most often touching on liberal and leftist political values. The offensive of the left-wing circles pointed out to identity politics – sometimes referred to as “culture war” by journalists. The idea was to fuel European identification by making references to the categories of “friend” and “foe,” where the pro-European forces were to be the left and the rivals – the conservatives and Christian Democrats.
This is how the two main axes of political disputes in 21st century Europe merged – the left-right divide on the one hand and the Euro-enthusiastic and Eurosceptic parties division on the other. Left-wing and liberal factions appropriated the name of pro-Europeanism and thus saw the advantages of the European project as a merit of the ideas and values coming exclusively from their own political camp. On the other hand, the conservatives and Christian democrats have been labeled opponents of integration, although most of them support integration but only demand to implement its slightly different version. Furthermore, Christian Democrats are among the founding fathers of the European Communities as they had a considerable influence on initiating integration process in post-war Europe.
The left-liberal offensive intended to paralyze the advocates of a subsidiary and decentralized Europe. It aimed to make it more difficult for right-wing politicians to contest the pro-European avant-garde supporting progressive centralization of the European project. Such a system resembles a federation but is actually controlled by the most powerful member states – Germany and France. It may also turn into a system with fewer and fewer democratic standards, as it systematically excludes certain political groups from influencing the power in a given country and in the EU.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borell speaks during a news conference on ‘A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change’. Brussels, Belgium, December 2, 2020.
Biden’s electoral success foreshadows the warming of transatlantic relations, at least as far as declarations and political values are at stake. The Americans care about rebuilding their alliance with the EU, which they intend to use to confront China and Russia, albeit the latter to a lesser extent. However, so far, no relevant agreement has been reached in Berlin and Paris, and thus in Brussels. Berlin needs an improved relationship with Washington to maintain a profitable economic relationship with the United States. For the same reasons, German politicians will not agree to an intensified political confrontation with China or Russia. On the other hand, a large part of the French elite dreams of strategic autonomy from Washington and NATO, and, at the same time, underestimates the threat coming from the East – especially from Russia. Therefore, they prefer the concept of a multipolar world within which a strong European pole can be built. Such a vision overestimates the strength of the EU – but taking into account European geopolitical weakness, avoiding confrontation with Moscow and Beijing seems a safe option in the short term. The vision of a multipolar world and an autonomous role for Europe is also consistent with German economic preferences.
This concept has serious strategic consequences. It leads to the loosening of the transatlantic alliance, both militarily and geopolitically, increases the possibilities of China’s expansion and Russia’s restoration of its former influence, and, finally, strengthens Germany’s dominance in Europe. All these factors are beneficial for Berlin, at least in the short term. Siding too strongly with the US in a confrontation with China and Russia could be costly and make it more difficult for Germany to gain geopolitical control over the EU and its neighborhood.
The election of Biden as President of the United States strengthens the progressive left in the US and worldwide. This will probably have several severe consequences for integration processes. The dispute over the rule of law and the political polarization in the EU are likely to deepen, encouraging further destabilization of the European project. This is how it could become even more vulnerable to interference from geopolitical competitors from the east. In addition to their support for the extreme right, we should expect similar actions in favor of the radical left.
China and Russia express a strong interest in weakening Europe not only because it is a potential ally of the United States. Enfeebling Europe is vital for both Beijing and Moscow – both of which are now preparing for fierce geopolitical and geo-economic competition for a new international order. The goal is to impose the most asymmetrical relations possible on the EU to the advantage of China and Russia, for instance by increasing the economic and technological dependence of EU countries. The European Union is to become a pasture for Chinese and Russian corporations rather than a strong actor in international politics, able to impose its own rules. Therefore, the idea of strategic autonomy and a strong European geopolitical pole may prove to be an illusion.
The growing ideologization of the EU suits both Russia and China because it means deepening divisions and conflicts within the EU. Ideologization will also limit Brussels’ pragmatism in dealing with future crises. This can already be seen in the actions of the European Parliament, which puts the fight for leftist values above common sense in many public policies and the EU’s external policy. Another consequence will be the growing politicization of the EU’s technocracy and judiciary. As a result, the European Union will be losing credible institutions that, if necessary, could be able to lower the temperature in disputes and thus use depoliticization as a strategy to move forward with European affairs.
The increasing politicization of European affairs does not solve the problem of a democratic deficit in the EU. The decision-making processes are dominated by the largest member states and not by the European Parliament or national parliaments. Moreover, the growing ideologization of European affairs translates into the disappearance of tolerance in Europe and the limitation of public discourse, which destroys democracy. Shortly after the demonstrators entered the US Congress, some European media called for a crackdown on local right-wing radicals, or at least for the introduction of restrictions on their political activities online. Managing the EU in such strong emotions is not an easy task even for the biggest countries, as the recent German presidency revealed. Growing polarization may therefore shatter the integration project, especially since Europe’s middle class is also shrinking. The new U.S. administration should thus mitigate ideological disputes within Europe. Unfortunately, it is more likely to inflame them further.
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