As 2020 came to a close, the EU concluded an investment agreement with China, to the displeasure of members of the incoming U.S. administration. Less than three months later, the EU joined Canada, the UK, and the United States in issuing targeted sanctions against several Chinese officials and a state-owned company for human rights violations against the Uyghurs to the ire of Beijing. What accounts for this apparent change of gears? European politics are complicated, and single explanations are never exhaustive. But the arrival of the new U.S. administration has played an important role.
Europe’s Wait-and-See Approach
The deep and palpable relief felt across the EU at the election of U.S. President Joe Biden also underscored the damage that former president Donald Trump and his administration had inflicted upon trust in the transatlantic relationship. Caution thus endured. After all, the United States’ ability to turn the tables goes both ways: however much Biden will overhaul U.S. politics, there is no insurance policy against a future return to Trumpism.
Biden’s messages from Washington about repairing relations with allies were loud and clear. But European leaders took some time to let the new realities sink in. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it at the 2021 Munich Security Conference following Biden’s “America is back” speech, “democracies should not only talk about freedom and values but also deliver results and help others to succeed around the world. In Germany, we have a saying: ‘There’s no good unless one does it.’ That’s the agenda before us now.”
Deeds matter most to European leaders, so they watched carefully to see Washington’s first actions. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has travelled to Brussels twice since taking office, and Biden joined the European Council meeting virtually in March. Brussels has very positive views of Biden’s decisions to reenter the Paris Agreement, rejoin the World Health Organization, and restart talks on the Iran nuclear deal. European coordination with Washington on Iran, sanctions against China and Myanmar, and against Russia within NATO are the tangible results of a different approach. The EU-U.S. dialogue on China, which had started at the very end of the Trump administration, was relaunched two days after the China sanctions were issued.
Signs of Renewed Transatlantic Cooperation
Aside from practical coordination, emerging EU foreign policy strategies echo U.S. approaches, such as the union’s fledgling policy on the Indo-Pacific with a focus on maritime security, trade and supply chains, and the desire to diversify European relationships with countries throughout Asia. Beyond foreign policy, the United States’ return to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and U.S. proposals for a global corporate taxation regime are welcome music to European ears. On top of breaking one of the many stalemates in international institutions that the Trump era caused, U.S. proposals are spurring EU member states to overcome their own—quite wide—differences and create a more level playing field on the continent for foreign investment and corporate activities. And, of course, ambitious climate goals are on the agenda for both the United States and the EU.
There are signs that these events are reshaping the debate in the EU about its strategic autonomy, now recalibrated in cooperative terms with the United States instead of the often-perceived antithetical terms during the Trump years. The concept of such autonomy is also quickly shifting from security and defense to geoeconomics. This is an area where the EU can leverage greater trade strengths, hence the importance in Brussels of dialogue with the United States on economic governance.
No Wholesale Convergence
Transatlantic dialogue may have resumed, but there will be difficult areas of discussion ahead, as well as divergent interests. The EU’s shift toward an “open strategic autonomy” underscores a desire to work with Washington on economic governance and trade. But there are concerns in Europe that Washington’s focus on a “foreign policy for the middle class” might lead to greater economic protectionism across the Atlantic.
Conversely, the EU is ambivalent about the degree to which it is willing to join the United States and its allies to push back against the rise of authoritarianism. In an sarcastic twist in the debate about the EU’s strategic autonomy, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently pointed out to Merkel in a phone conversation, “We hope the EU can make the right judgment independently and achieve strategic autonomy in the real sense.” So far, EU member states continue to be typically divided and cautious in their relationships with China and Russia. Their response to the most recent events—the Russian military build-up on the border with Ukraine and reported Chinese incursions in Taiwan’s air space—has been ambivalent.
European capitals were surprised at the scope of Beijing’s retaliation following the EU’s sanctions on the treatment of Uyghurs. The chances of the EU ratifying the investment agreement, so rapidly wrapped up after years of negotiation, are now in jeopardy. China too is putting pressure on the EU. Next time, European leaders may think twice. Yet a common transatlantic agenda of pushing back against authoritarianism and preventing military escalation is still to be shaped.