Despite the long-awaited political change in Washington as Democratic President, Joe Biden, has officially become the 46th President of the United States, Europe is unlikely to resume its previously unhindered reliance on its trans-Atlantic partner.
The four years of Donald Trump were rife with tension and strife between the US and Europe - in fact, between the US and its traditional allies, including Mexico and Canada. However, the strain in the US-EU relationship long preceded Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s eccentric personal style - and often blunt rhetoric and action - was an indicator to Europe that the continent urgently needed to create its own leadership alternatives to Washington. Following World War II, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact in 1991, the US became the uncontested leader of the West and, eventually, the globe’s only superpower. These dynamics are now experiencing an unparalleled influx.
The US commitment to the post-war paradigm was clearly faltering. Consequently, statements from Europe’s political elites in recent years suggest a massive rethink among European governments regarding their definition of the relationship with Washington, an alliance that ran the world for decades.
In an unprecedented statement in May 2017, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, articulated the massive shift in Europe’s new political outlook when she said, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.” In that momentous speech in Munich, Germany’s strong leader signaled the beginning of the end of the disproportionate reliance on the US and the UK.
The reason behind the distrust in Washington and London was obvious. On the one hand, President Trump has labored to disrupt and reverse traditional US policies towards Europe, including a scathing attack on the integrity and the mission of NATO, and the latter’s usefulness to the US in terms of global security.
The UK, no longer a member of the European Union, on the other hand, has confronted the EU with its greatest challenges, as it rejected not only EU’s fiscal, migration and other policies but also the very notion of the ‘European Community’. Coupled with Washington’s global retreat, ‘Brexit’ decisively ended any illusion that a post-WWII political scenario can still be possible.
Attesting to this seismic change in the attitude of Europe’s mainstream politicians, were the remarks by French President, Emmanuel Macron, in November 2018 when he called for a “true European army” to protect the continent from outside threats. “We must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States,” Macron said.
While there is some truth to media assertions that “the EU sighs with relief as Biden readies to enter White House,” this should not be confused with hyped European expectations that the new American President is able to fully reset EU-US ties of yesteryears, nor should it indicate European eagerness to engage the US with unfiltered trust and enthusiasm.
Actual data from a large pan-European survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations confirm Europe’s fundamentally changing attitude toward the US. The survey included more than 15,000 people in 11 EU countries and was held after it became clear that Biden had won the US elections.
According to the survey, the majority in leading EU countries believe that “the US political system is broken,” that “China will be more powerful than the US within a decade” and, finally, that “the Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them.” Particularly interesting, the ECFR’s commissioned poll signaled a massive geopolitical shift in Europeans’ view towards global alliances, viewing “Berlin, rather than Washington, as the most important partner”.
On the issue of trust, only 27% of polled Europeans believe that ‘Americans can be trusted’ after they voted for Trump in 2016. With Germany currently being Europe’s de facto leader, the views of Germans towards their American counterparts are particularly critical. Hence, the US must take note that 53% of German respondents have lost trust in a country that once was a close partner.
ECFR chose the eve of Biden’s inauguration to release the findings of the report, itself a message to the new administration to tread very carefully while attempting to repair broken ties on both sides of the Atlantic.
The ball is no longer in Washington’s court alone. The fact that the majority of Europeans believe in China’s impending global leadership in a matter of a few years means that the EU will have no patience for any American ultimatum to choose between Washington and Beijing. The latter is no longer a fleeting economic phenomenon but an irreversible force on the global stage that cannot be easily dismissed, effectively ‘sanctioned’ or simply wished away.
The next few years should be enough for Europe to determine its new identity, without Britain and without relying on American guidance and leadership. Considering Europe’s brewing political crises, with Italy being the latest example, and the unavoidably dire economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe’s journey to a revamped version of itself is likely to be a painful one and, like all difficult choices, rife with challenges and much introspection.