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A Transatlantic Honeymoon? Not Yet

22 Jul 2021
By Rachel Bell Macdonald
President Joe Biden talks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday, June 10, 2021, at the Carbis Bay Hotel and Estate in Cornwall, England. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

US President Joe Biden and European leaders held cosy displays at the G7, EU-US, and NATO Summits held last month. One could be mistaken for thinking that transatlantic relations are on a new upwards trajectory.

The warm embrace shared by Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, with Biden declaring triumphantly that, “America is back”, and Macron echoing these sentiments, seems to suggest the relationship has recovered from its low point under President Donald Trump. At the US-NATO summit, too, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed President Biden, stating, “I know we can count on America.”  But, as comforting as such optics are, they belie the more complex reality of EU-US relations. Coursing under the façade of bumping elbows and lobster picnics are currents of wariness surrounding US global leadership, differing perspectives on critical issues, and simmering discontent that will stand in the way of the close EU-US alignment that Biden so desires.

If the headlines and photos of the summits were anything to go by, Biden’s first trip to Europe was an undisputed success. Afterall, in just a few days, a G7 Communiqué was released that for the first time explicitly criticised China’s human rights records and its coercion in the East and South China Seas. Indeed, this communiqué was the most damning rebuke of China since Tiananmen Square three decades ago. Compared to the 2019 Biarritz G7 Communiqué, which failed to even name China, the differences in just a few years are striking. Combined with the smoothing over of transatlantic disputes (the seventeen-year-old Boeing-Airbus dispute, for one) and ambitious (albeit vague) initiatives like the US-EU Trade and Tech Council and the Build Back Better for the World plan, a new era of EU-US cooperation against a common adversary seems to beckon. These developments come off the back of coordinated sanctions in March from the US, EU, UK, and Canada levelled against Chinese officials complicit in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

But as the sugar rush fades and the complexity of transatlantic relations is brought back into focus, such hopes of wholesale EU-US alignment, particularly regarding China, become wishful at best. Indeed, despite Biden proclaiming that Europe is America’s “natural partner,” committed to the same “democratic norms and values that are now under attack,” the prevailing sentiment in Europe is one of wariness surrounding the Cold War-esque rhetoric emanating from Washington. Europe remains unconvinced and unenamoured with Washington’s threat perceptions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserted that Europe must not “overestimate” the China threat. Similarly, in press conferences after the summits, European leaders already seemed to backtrack on the denunciations made in the communiqués, with Macron emphasising that the G7 is “not hostile to China.” These sentiments were even more apparent in remarks following the NATO Communiqué, where Macron stated bluntly that, “China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” while Merkel emphasised that Russia, not China, was the primary challenge.

These differences in China policy should come as no surprise to onlookers. China has long been the proverbial elephant in the room in EU-US relations and will continue to be. Economically, Europe, and in particular Germany, finds itself more dependent on the Chinese economy for trade than the US. And though the EU’s updated Industrial Strategy means that the bloc is in the midst of diversifying trade and reducing its dependency on China, which currently accounts for half the strategic exports that Europe is dependent on, detangling and diversifying supply chains away from China will take time. Even the EU-China investment agreement that was hastily agreed last December, much to the disappointment of the Biden administration, is not yet off the table completely. The EU Parliament may have held off ratifying the deal in response to Beijing’s sanctions against European officials, but many still expect the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment to pass within the next two years. Combined with the lingering distrust from the Trump years and extant simmering issues, such as the continuing Trump-era tariffs on EU steel and aluminium and the US’s decision to waive COVID-19 vaccine patents against EU wishes, talk of a transatlantic honeymoon seems premature.

Of course, had spectators paid attention to Macron’s remarks at a press conference made the day before the summit, such honeymoon hopes may have been tempered at the outset. In that address, Macron laid out an EU trajectory that should now sound familiar. Though his broad ranging remarks praised the return of a US committed to multilateralism and laid out his hopes for a partnership with the US based on values, the overarching caveat in these declarations was the need for European sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Critically, this independence must exist in Europe’s strategy with China, Macron declared. While Macron does not speak for the entirety of the EU, his influence is likely to grow as the Merkel era ends. This will be particularly true if he manages to win a second five-year term in 2022, which he is poised to do with approval ratings stronger than usual for incumbent presidents in France. In any case, Merkel and her possible heir, Armin Laschet, seem to echo Macron’s sentiments, with Merkel talking of the need to find the “right balance” on China policy and Laschet questioning whether Europe really needs a new adversary.

Transatlantic convergence is far from assured. The balance that the EU will strike on China policy will be one that fulfils European interests in the first instance, and US interests only to the extent they align with Europe’s. This alignment may yet occur if Beijing’s behaviour at home and abroad continues to challenge European interests and values, and, equally importantly, if Biden can prove to the bloc that he is not just an interim president for Trump or others like him. Thus far, the EU’s attempts to tread an independent path and resist the US-China duopoly means that a transatlantic honeymoon will have to wait.

Rachel Bell Macdonald is a third year student at the University of Sydney studying a Bachelor of Arts and Advanced Studies, majoring in Politics, International Relations and History. Rachel was an intern with AIIA NSW, is a member of the US Consul General Youth Advisory Council, and hopes to pursue Honours in her final year of university.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.