‘The hellhole says goodbye’: Glee and relief in Europe as Trump departs

High hopes for Biden, but profound damage and US-EU policy differences set to endure

Former US president Donald Trump has left the White House. Rather than attend the inauguration of his successor Joe Biden he has chosen to travel to Florida with his wife Melania. Video: Reuters/CNBC

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Europe reacted to the end of the Trump era with undisguised relief and high hopes that the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president spells the end of estrangement between old allies.

“The United States is back,” declared European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

There was an outpouring of congratulations for Biden and his vice-president Kamala Harris from EU leaders, tied to a wish list of issues that Europeans hope the new administration will take up, from ending trade sanctions to curbing carbon emissions.

“Climate change, Covid-19 and the fight against terrorism are at the top of the long list of global challenges that we can only tackle successfully by working together, in a spirit of international co-operation and solidarity,” said Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo.

Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office, bringing the US back into the global plan to cut emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change. Leaving the accord was part of Donald Trump’s provocative foreign policy that reflected his dislike of multilateral co-operation. It was broadly felt in Europe that to have any chance of limiting global warming, the US would need to be on board.

In some quarters reaction to Trump’s departure was more than relief. It was glee.

“The hellhole says goodbye” tweeted Brussels’ public transport agency with a sassy wave emoji, in reference to Trump’s description of the city. In many parts of Europe, and indeed the world, such throwaway insults have not been forgotten.

Joe Biden inauguration: In pictures

View here

Biden has already been invited to visit the city to rekindle the transatlantic alliance. The pandemic means no physical meetings can be certain, but Nato is also keen for a Biden visit. Its secretary general Jens Stoltenberg called Biden’s inauguration the “start of a new chapter for the transatlantic alliance”.

He is keen to demonstrate the band is back together, after Trump’s undermined the alliance’s bedrock principle of collective defence by equivocating on whether he would come to the aid of other Nato members if they were attacked.

Despite taking an evening to enjoy the inauguration, there is also realism in Europe that the clock cannot be turned back, and that profound policy differences have bedded in between the EU and US.

Outstanding differences

There is a disconnect between the two allies on China, where Brussels has resisted joining Washington’s hard line. The EU signed an investment agreement with Beijing just three weeks ago despite the incoming administration making its opposition known. It insists that while Beijing is a rival and competitor in some areas, it is a partner in others, such as in tackling climate change.

On trade, the European Commission acknowledges there will not be a return to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP, the proposed EU-US trade deal it once touted as a chance to boost the bloc’s economy by €120 billion.

Donald Trump halted negotiations after his election, initiating a trade conflict with the EU instead. Under Biden, the commission does not anticipate the talks will be revived for two reasons: the new administration’s expected focus on domestic policy, and outstanding differences between the sides on agricultural goods.

The ongoing trade trouble was reflected in a call for an end to US tariffs on EU agricultural goods from the head of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee.

Amid the congratulations and goodwill, German MEP Nobert Lins published a letter in which he appealed for the commission to “seize on the new momentum in Washington” to end sanctions on both sides of the Atlantic. As part of the smouldering trade feud over subsidies to aircraft makers Boeing and Airbus, the Trump administration slapped fresh tariffs on EU products including French wines just last week.

And aside from specific policy issues, Biden cannot easily reverse the deep change in European attitudes towards the US caused by the Trump administration and the fact that so many US voters continued to support it.

This was reflected in a survey of attitudes by the European Council on Foreign Relations published this week. It found a “massive change” in voter attitudes.

“Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them,” its summary read.

This is fuelling support for more investment in European defence, with citizens increasingly considering their country’s relationship with Berlin as more crucial than that with Washington.

“Rather than aligning with Washington, they want their countries to stay neutral in a conflict between the US and Russia or China,” the survey found. “Public moods have policy consequences.”

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