Biden victory gives EU last chance to save transatlantic alliance

Trump changed the rules and the EU needs to learn lessons to help build a new order

US president-elect Joe Biden after delivering his victory address in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday. Photograph: Jim Lo scalzo/EPA

US president-elect Joe Biden after delivering his victory address in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday. Photograph: Jim Lo scalzo/EPA

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The arrival of Joe Biden in the White House offers a unique opportunity to reboot the transatlantic alliance which has suffered greatly from the Trump years.

There will not only be a very welcome change of style and tone, there will also be a change of policy.

Biden values his Irish connections and he also values the alliances which have bound the United States and Europe since the end of the second World War: Nato, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation(WTO) and the United Nations. He has openly expressed his wish to renew these alliances and to work closely with like-minded allies on global problems, such as the fight against climate change or the coronavirus pandemic. He will rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organisation, is open to bringing the US back to the table on the Iran nuclear talks and will, hopefully, develop a more constructive US position regarding the WTO.

Structural changes

All of this will, in and of itself, be hugely positive.

But we in Europe need to be clear-eyed about the world we now face.

The structural and demographic changes in the US are irreversible and they will continue to influence policy regardless of who is in power. The base of President Donald Trump’s support, strikingly demonstrated in these elections, will not go away, notwithstanding a Biden win. It will take some time to heal the wounds of the last 20 years: 9/11, the blood and treasure lost in the endless wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the de-industrialisation of the US economy, the culture wars, the yawning gap of economic inequality, the unfinished business of racial discrimination, the feeling of a US bearing an unequal share of the world’s problems, and, above all, the prevailing sense that the US needs to take time out from running the world and spend more time nurturing its own wellbeing.

These are powerful forces which cannot be ignored by any administration. The fact that the Republicans look likely to hold the senate will also complicate matters for Biden. The US will need time and space to get its own house in order. Biden realises that this requires the US to rebuild alliances and friendships, but we, the friends and allies of the US, need also to understand that we will have to play our part.

For us Europeans, this means having our own vision of how to build a new world order, where the US remains the indispensable nation but one no longer willing to shoulder the entire responsibility of managing the system.

We should be under no illusion: Biden’s victory needs to be the beginning of new willingness on the part of Europe to stand on our own two feet, and be a more equal partner of the US in addressing global challenges, because the last four years have changed the rules of the game and we need to learn from that lesson. The transatlantic alliance will remain our most important relationship, but it can no longer be taken for granted. Even with a Biden victory, Europe needs to become a more equal and mature partner to ensure that the transatlantic relationship will continue to deliver for both sides.

We must offer the Biden administration a new transatlantic deal.

We will need to do more to shoulder responsibility for our own defence and security (not just spending more money but greater EU co-operation on defence issues). The problem is not just how much we spend on defence but the real defence capabilities we get for our money, as well as our willingness to deploy military assets in pursuit of our policy objectives, especially in our own neighbourhood and Africa.

We will need to find a new balance in our trading relationship. A helpful start would be ending the Airbus-Boeing dispute and eliminating tariffs on industrial goods, but we will also need an accommodation on agricultural trade which respects our different systems but where both sides feel that unfair barriers are reduced.

Digital opportunity

We will need to figure out together how the global digital space is managed in a world of hugely increased digital opportunity combined with hugely increased vulnerability, including how we tax and regulate the tech giants and how we manage data transfers, especially in light of recent European Court of Justice judgments.

And we will, above all, have to agree how we manage the rise of China as a rival, a competitor and a partner, in building the global environment of the 21st century. Trump’s approach of confrontation has not worked. Together, the US and the EU, with other like-minded countries, need to craft a much more nuanced response.

This is a challenging list, not least for Ireland which has multiple sensitivities across this entire agenda.

But we need to understand that the stakes over the next four years will be high. With the election of Biden we may well be facing the last chance to adapt the transatlantic alliance to the new realities of US politics in ways which preserve the essence of what binds us together with a clear realisation that, paradoxical as it may sound, the reinvigoration of the relationship requires an EU that is more self-reliant, more self-confident and more willing to shoulder a great share of global responsibilities than has ever been the case to date.

Biden’s election requires us to answer the question not so much of what the US can continue to do for us but rather what we can, and must, do for ourselves.

David O’Sullivan is a former EU ambassador to the US

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