BRUSSELS – The European Union is grasping the imminent arrival of the incoming Biden administration as a moment to reset relations with the United States after four years of trans-Atlantic acrimony under President Donald Trump.
With a series of initiatives, the 27-nation bloc is seeking to rekindle the spirit of cooperation between Washington and Europe that has long defined global diplomacy. But the EU also acknowledges that future relations will have to adapt to a multi-polar world where China is an ever bigger player.
“It is time to reconnect," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.
The EU is glad to be shedding the Trump years. The president has often criticized European allies for cowering under the U.S. defense and security umbrella while seeking economic advantage through subsidies and other trade tactics.
“Let’s look forward, not back. Let’s rejuvenate our relationship,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
Both sides face major challenges, including beating the coronavirus pandemic and containing climate change.
During the four years of unraveling trans-Atlantic relations, China and Russia have gained influence, and the EU is looking for the strongest partner possible.
EU partners are seeking a change from Trump's go-it-alone credo and back a multilateral approach to better deal with global crises.
The EU has already invited President-elect Joe Biden to visit Brussels at the earliest opportunity next year. Beyond the EU itself, Germany and France have sounded equally welcoming to Biden.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity," states a strategy paper released by Borrell on Wednesday.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, the EU is already calling for the United States to come back to boosting the World Health Organization, which Trump jettisoned earlier this year.
Trump also pulled Washington from the Paris climate agreement, and the EU is seeking for Biden to bring the U.S. back into that fold again, too.
However, the EU realizes its intents might not match reality anytime soon on issues such a trade conflict over subsidies — highlighted by the longstanding fight between plane construction champions Boeing and Airbus and differences over steel exports.
Even if the EU would love to intensify its outreach before Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20, it is still hamstrung by U.S. congressional confirmation hearings, which make it difficult for any talks to get into diplomatic detail.
The next seven weeks do leave time for Europe to put its own house in order when it comes to reaching out to Washington, and not to squander the opportunity because of internal strife, said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S. who now runs the annual Munich Security Conference.
Ischinger referred to a simmering dispute between Germany and France over European defense, a rare clash between the nations that dominate the EU.
Trump’s retreat from traditional alliances prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to push the idea of “strategic autonomy” that would make Europe much more self-sufficient in providing for its own defense.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said before the U.S. presidential election that Berlin still considers a close partnership with the United States as critical for European security.
“Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider” with its nuclear deterrence on the European continent, Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote in an op-ed for Politico.
Her published opinion prompted an unusually public rebuke from Macron, who said he “profoundly” disagreed and suggested it was “a historical misinterpretation.”
Ischinger called the episode “a totally unnecessary public dispute” between two allies.
“Quite frankly, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and Emmanuel Macron are on the same page. They want the same thing - they want a stronger Europe," he said.
Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel will be able to discuss the issue in person next week when EU leaders gather in Brussels for a summit that has U.S. relations high on the agenda.
David Rising contributed from Berlin