The relief and enthusiasm at the change in U.S. administration has been palpable across Europe. The time has come for the United States and Europe to find ways not only to repair their relationship but also to seek common ground from which to address global shifts and challenges. Unprecedentedly, European Union (EU) member states have not squabbled to get Washington’s attention, nor have they waited for the new U.S. leadership to set the agenda to reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship. Rather, the Europeans have capitalized on the optimism of change to propose initiatives for collaboration and renew diplomatic efforts.1
The damage inflicted on relations between the United States and Europe and the brittle international context warrant an ambitious reform agenda to be shared by the two sides—and beyond. Even if EU leaders abandon the temptation of lazy transatlanticism and accept there is no return to the past, strategic clarity and a willingness to commit to a greater international role are still lacking.2
In light of the interests and goals of the new U.S. administration, this collection of essays takes a hard look at how Europe can design its foreign policy priorities and how the EU and the United States converge or diverge in addressing them. The series also offers short- and longer-term proposals for a more cooperative relationship. Rebuilding trust and working together can lay the foundations for hard conversations on issues where the EU and the United States will diverge. And even where they converge, the balance of responsibility for finding solutions will have to tilt toward Europe, which can no longer escape the need to provide stability to its neighborhood, beef up its security capacity, and shape its global policies.
The EU needs to be proactive in defining its international goals while being pragmatic and realistic in turning them into actionable policies. The union must also be unambiguous about its divergences with the United States and build dialogue to talk about such differences. The next, more benign phase of relations with the United States can help the EU’s coming of age in international politics.
The Enduring Relevance of the Transatlantic Relationship
The transatlantic relationship has been structurally drifting. European views of the United States and its leadership have been in steady decline over time.3 During the administration of former U.S. president Donald Trump, opinions plummeted to the extent that Germans are split between the United States and China as their preferred partner.4 Strategically, the United States has moved its gaze toward Asia, while Europe oscillates between transatlanticism and a quest for greater independence from its traditional ally,5 encapsulated in the debate about Europe’s strategic autonomy.6
The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU complicates the diplomatic landscape and its multiple formats—such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Group of Seven (G7), the Group of Twenty (G20), and the European Three (E3) of France, Germany, and the UK—while London and Brussels compete for Washington’s attention. Should Europe’s disunity continue, Washington will turn selectively to Paris, Berlin, London, and other capitals.
Yet, the partnership between the United States and the EU—even without the UK—remains the most integrated and interdependent relationship for both sides from all points of view: economically, financially, digitally, militarily, and culturally. Americans and Europeans may have become more curious about the rest of the world, but the connections across the Atlantic are solid in terms of economic and financial integration, education, scientific and cultural cooperation, and people-to-people contacts. The new U.S. administration and the EU share similar worldviews.
Europe and the United States also stand together in sharing major challenges for the coming decades. Against the backdrop of the climate crisis and the technological revolution, the post-pandemic world will impose on Europe and the United States the responsibility not only to promote health as a global common good but also to counter the impact of the economic recession on lower-income countries.7 At home, both are embracing a green and digital economy as a means of renewal.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s agenda includes healing the divisions of polarization and America’s democratic shortcomings,8 which the storming of the Capitol so dramatically exemeplified. European states and the EU, too, are beset by democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism and populism.9 The United States and Europe will need to vigorously reform their democracies to counter the attractiveness of the authoritarian model, which has been promoted through rising geopolitical competition, and fireproof their relationship from further populist backlashes.
Both Europe and the United States will need to deal with world turmoil, disruptive actors, and the relative decline of the West in a fraying international system. And both will need to sell their foreign policies at home if they want public backing for ambitious international change.
This shared agenda provides plenty of opportunities to give new value to cooperation across the Atlantic. From whatever angle one looks at the future, the EU needs to step up its international engagement and take responsibility. Transatlanticism and strategic autonomy are not mutually exclusive.
The Quick Fixes
The U.S. pledge to return to multilateralism and diplomacy presents abundant opportunities to repair some of the damage done during the previous administration and make strong statements about the enduring relevance of U.S.-European relations and NATO.10
Fighting the climate crisis has acquired a new impetus thanks to Biden’s executive order that brought the United States back into the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change. The space for collaboration is wide at the multilateral level, including on finding new ways to work with a drifting UK to prepare the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held in Glasgow. Europe’s uninterrupted climate diplomacy could also help the United States reengage in climate dialogues, for instance with China.
On global public health, the fight against the coronavirus and reform of the World Health Organization give the EU and the United States a unique opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and solidarity in vaccine distribution and prevent the politicization of health by China and Russia in the developing world. Other stagnating international institutions, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the World Trade Organization, and NATO, can also get a boost.11
Europeans can act swiftly to create a context to enable a U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, despite the scorched-earth policy of the last weeks of the Trump administration. Biden has rejoined the accord but has also signaled a commitment to working on nonproliferation and arms-control initiatives—areas where European states can be supportive
The Long Game: Convergence and Divergence Between Partners
Three principles can guide the EU through the complexity of cooperating with the United States on key strategic dossiers. First, the EU should leverage its strengths, which include its role as a global norm and standard setter, its economic might, and its diplomatic network of EU and member state representations around the world and in global institutions. The goal should be to make the EU an attractive partner for cooperation.
Second, and relatedly, the EU should be flexible and more nimble with respect to formats for cooperation, recognizing that EU mechanisms are burdensome and complicated for third parties. Multipolarity and the rise of powers outside the West, including middle powers, have contributed to creating an international environment that favors more fluid and changing arrangements alongside older alliances. The E3 is the only format for systematic cooperation with the UK. Alongside the G7 and G20, other proposals are floating, such as a Democracy Ten or a Technology Twelve, which could include a handful of EU member states.
Working with both the United States and the UK—the EU’s two closest partners, despite the derailments of Trump and Brexit—will require ingenuity for the EU to be united while operating in flexible formats. If the EU is represented at international gatherings by its largest member states, it needs to find ways to compensate the smaller EU countries through inclusive debates and improve its capacity for unity, which is so often lacking. The E3 group worked well by putting the EU’s foreign policy chief in charge of the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program.
Third, the EU needs to avoid siloed approaches to policies and focus instead on spaces for compromise with the United States that may cut across policy competencies. Indeed, aside from the quick fixes on which the EU and the United States can reach easy agreement, most other dossiers on which the two sides stand close to each other—from fighting the climate crisis and terrorism to engaging with the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Iran—will call for convergence as well as trade-offs.
In Europe’s Eastern and Southern neighborhoods, formerly areas of EU-U.S. cooperation, recent haphazard and destabilizing U.S. engagement has weakened EU traction and permitted regional actors to shape an explosive environment mired by escalating tensions. China, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey share the goal of weakening European and U.S. influence and upending the region for their own purposes—and have been extremely successful at doing so through military and hybrid means.
U.S. diplomacy can lean in more heavily here, but it will want Europe to keep Russia at a distance and provide leadership in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya. Similarly, the transatlantic allies will converge on the need to maintain the relevance of NATO, but Washington will expect European NATO members to take on a greater share of the defense burden. Smart European contributions can include strengthening NATO-EU cooperation, building capacity to counter hybrid and cyber threats, cooperating on emerging technologies, and bringing the United States into fledgling EU defense initiatives.
Technology is an area where engagement with the United States requires careful crafting and possible compromises. Between the ambition of technological sovereignty and the authoritarian threat of China’s techno-surveillance model, the space for EU-U.S. cooperation is broad but fraught with differences over privacy, data regulation, and taxation of tech giants.
The most formidable challenge will be the relationship with China, which embraces vast policy areas—climate, technology, human rights, security, and trade—where transatlantic divergences abound. The EU's Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, negotiated at the very end of 2020 without any prior discussion with the new administration, indicates the gulf between the two sides of the Atlantic with respect to China and does not bode well for improving relations with Washington. This said, better coordination among EU member states on the China file would help persuade Washington that forcing partners to make a binary choice between it and Beijing does not always pay off.
The U.S.-EU Relationship and the West
The United States has been framing global politics under the rubric of the U.S.-China rivalry. Europe and Western countries in other regions may prefer a more nuanced approach. The way to achieve the pursuit of global goods—be it by mitigating the climate crisis or by promoting democracy—is through new and fluid relationships, rather than by relying on alliances.
The EU and the United States stand close to each other in sharing similar challenges and worldviews. Together, they have formed the backbone of the West, with Europe as the junior partner. Calls for stronger EU autonomy are met with skepticism from those on both sides of the Atlantic who see it as detrimental not only to the unique EU-U.S. relationship but also to the West in general at a time of challenge from rival civilizational models. Circling back to enduring alliances is seen as the best defense against the assault of rising antagonists.
This defense should not be to the detriment of the openness of the U.S. and European democratic systems, however imperfect and in need of reform they may be. The West’s weakness lies in the privilege it used to enjoy thanks to its global hegemony, which was maintained so long as the West provided the dividends of peace and prosperity to the rest of the world. That world is long gone, and the transatlantic relationship needs to reflect the shifting balance of power away from the West. Looking forward, whatever level of cooperation is achieved between the EU and the United States, it needs to be inclusive and open to engagement and partnership with countries around the globe.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the U.S. Mission to the EU for their support of this publication.
1 “Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council, and the Council: A New EU-U.S. Agenda for Global Change,” European Commission, December 2, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/joint-communication-eu-us-agenda_en.pdf.
2 Rosa Balfour, “Europe’s High Expectations for a U.S. President Joe Biden,” November 10, 2020, Carnegie Europe, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/83191.
3 Richard Wike, Janell Fetterolf, and Mara Mordecai, “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Country Has Handled Coronavirus Badly,” Pew Research Center, September 15, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/.
4 Jacob Poushter and Mara Mordecai, “Americans and Germans Differ in Their Views of Each Other and the World,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/03/09/americans-and-germans-differ-in-their-views-of-each-other-and-the-world/#closer-ties-with-russia-and-china.
5 Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “Europe Still Needs America,” Politico, November 2, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-still-needs-america/; Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, “How Berlin Can Help Biden—and Itself,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, November 19, 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/11/19/how-berlin-can-help-biden-and-itself.
6 “La doctrine Macron : une conversation avec le Président français” (in French), Le Grand Continent, November 16, 2020, https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2020/11/16/macron/; “Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe” (EU Global Strategy), European External Action Service, June 2016, https://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/top_stories/pdf/eugs_review_web.pdf.
7 Karen Donfried and Wolfgang Ischinger, “The Pandemic and the Toll of Transatlantic Discord,” Foreign Affairs, April 18, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-18/pandemic-and-toll-transatlantic-discord.
8 Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
9 Rosa Balfour, “Why Populism Can Survive the Pandemic,” Carnegie Europe, July 15, 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2020/07/15/why-populism-can-survive-pandemic-pub-82293.
10 “Joint Communication,” European Commission.
11 “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, November 25, 2020, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Reflection-Group-Final-Report-Uni.pdf.