Despite the long-awaited political change in Washington, with Democratic President Joe Biden now safely in the White House, Europe is unlikely to resume its previously unhindered reliance on its transatlantic partner. The four years of Donald Trump’s term in office were full of tension and difficulties between the US and Europe; indeed, between the US and its traditional allies, including Mexico and Canada. However, the strain in the US-EU relationship long preceded Trump’s presidency.
The former president’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 Two, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991, the US became the uncontested leader of the West. Eventually, it was the world’s only superpower. These dynamics are now experiencing an unparalleled state of flux.
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 signalled the beginning of the end of the disproportionate reliance on the US and Britain.
The reason for the distrust in Washington and London was obvious. On the one hand, President Trump laboured 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.
Britain, meanwhile, is no longer a member of the European Union, and has confronted the bloc with its greatest challenges by rejecting not only the 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,” he explained.
While there is some truth to media assertions that the EU “sighed with relief” when Biden entered the White House, this should not be confused with hyped European expectations that the new American President is able to fully reset EU-US ties to those of yesteryear. 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 towards 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 election.
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-commissioned poll signalled a massive geopolitical shift in Europe’s view towards global alliances, seeing “Berlin, rather than Washington, as the most important partner”.
On the issue of trust, only 27 per cent of those polled 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 should really take note that 53 per cent of German respondents have lost trust in a country that was once a close partner.
The ECFR chose the eve of Biden’s inauguration to release the findings of the report. This was in 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 with any US 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 painful and, like all difficult choices, rife with challenges and much introspection. Nevertheless, it will redefine itself, despite the political shift in the US.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.