Biden in Europe: the future of the transatlantic relationship

Ricardo Borges de Castro, Jeffrey Michaels, Federiga Bindi, Michelle Egan

The journey undertaken by the President of the United States to Europe — first to Cornwall for the G7 meeting, then to Brussels to meet the EU institutions and the NATO allies, and finally to Geneva to meet the Russian president Vladimir Putin — illustrated the United States’ determination to return to the world stage and to multilateralism, and the restoration of a transatlantic alliance that had lost its lustre during the presidency of Donald Trump. This about-turn in terms of foreign policy and the renewal of the Atlantic alliance nevertheless raises several questions. Is it really true that “America is back”, as Biden maintains? Is this a long-term opportunity for renewed understanding between the United States and Europe? Can Biden recover the trust of his European allies? To what extent can it be said that the United States and Europe are cooperating or diverging in relation to the major issues of the global agenda, such as vaccination, trade and China?

On 23rd June a virtual debate was held, jointly organised by the Government of Catalonia’s delegation to the United States, the Government of Catalonia’s delegation to the EU, and the Catalan Centre for Contemporary Studies (CETC). A number of foreign policy experts from both sides of the Atlantic assessed Joe Biden’s visit to Europe and the current state of relations between the United States and the European Union. The participants in the debate, moderated by Isidre Sala, the delegate of the Government of Catalonia in the United States, were the following: Michelle Egan, a staff member at the School of International Service at the American University; Federiga Bindi, the Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; Jeffrey Michaels, the chief researcher in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI); and Ricardo Borges de Castro, the Assistant Director of the European Policy Centre. The debate also featured a closing address by Victòria Alsina, the Minister for External Action and Open Government of the Government of Catalonia

Biden’s trip to Europe and the renewal of the transatlantic relationship

The debate started with the moderator, Isidre Sala, presenting the participants and asking them to highlight the most noteworthy aspects of Biden’s visit to Europe. The first person to speak was Michelle Egan, who emphasised “Biden’s different tone compared with that of the previous administration,” together with Biden’s insistence on his message “America is back”, by which he wishes to symbolise the United States’ return to multilateralism. Egan declared that the journey could be qualified “as a success” in the sense that “there were agreements on subjects such as Russia and cybersecurity.” Nevertheless, there are other topics, such as trade tariffs, the reform of the World Trade Organisation and the attitude that NATO should take towards China, where the two parties showed divergences.

Federiga Bindi declared that she had “opposing viewpoints” on this question. From an American viewpoint, the journey can be qualified as “mission accomplished”, especially with regard to Russia. From a European perspective, she stated that the EU was “happy to once again have a U.S. President to tell them what they should do,” a fact that shows that “the EU does not have the will or the strength to have its own foreign policy.” This positive perception of the role of the U.S. on the part of Bindi was shown when she was asked about the impact of the pandemic and Biden’s intention to organise a summit of democracies with the aim of strengthening democratic institutions. Bindi considered that, while Europe “has been left behind”, the pandemic has helped the American president to apply his progressive policies. “Biden is a defender of values such as strength and the role of the United States as an example for others,” she added.

For his part, Jeffrey Michaels agreed that the journey had been a success in terms of the way of conducting political relationships, “especially when compared with Donald Trump’s journey in 2017”, and emphasised the sensation of a “return to normality.” With regard to the content of his visits, Michaels underlined that Biden gave great importance to the Eastern European members of NATO, but was surprised by the fact that Biden spoke about “red lines” in his meeting with Putin, without defining exactly what they were.

Finally, Ricardo Borges de Castro, asked about the EU’s viewpoint, considered that for Europe the journey had been a “good reset”, while affirming that “the hard work starts now.” Borges noted that the EU is still discussing how to approach transatlantic relations, faced with uncertainty about knowing how long this period of good relations was likely to last. According to Borges de Castro, one of the greatest divergences at a geopolitical level is the position with regard to China. While the United States see China as “a threat”, many in Europe see the country more as “an economic opportunity.” Another difficult in re-establishing transatlantic relations will be trade, since “until the U.S. eliminates the tariffs on steel imports, Europe will not be prepared to move on”.

Transatlantic cooperation for vaccination

The second part of the debate focused on Biden’s announcement of the donation of 500 million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to developing countries and of his support for the liberalisation of vaccine patents in order to accelerate the vaccination process at a global level, and also on the EU’s surprised reaction to the announcement. The moderator, Isidre Sala, asked participants to assess whether there had been coordination between the United States and Europe with regard to the COVID-19 vaccination strategy or whether in fact there had been divergences.

Michelle Egan indicated that, despite Biden’s comments on the liberalisation of patents, “they had not resulted in any proposal to the World Trade Organization.” It is in this domain that the United States and the European Union have had divergences, given that “while Europe wishes to focus on supplying vaccines all over the world, the United States is focusing on legal terms concerning intellectual property.” Finally, Egan emphasised that in both the US and the EU vaccination was the responsibility of the different US states or EU Member States respectively, for which reason she considers that “it is confusing to speak about a global vaccination policy for the US or the EU as a whole. Ricardo Borges de Castro gave further details of the European perspective with regard to vaccination, and declared that the best way of accelerating the vaccination for Europe is to “guarantee the production of vaccines” so as to satisfy world demand and then to distribute this production.

For her part, Federiga Bindi noted the importance of the fact that vaccination was free of charge in the US, a fact that she considered “interesting for seeing how this affects future US health policy.” She continued by emphasising the idea that, in the field of vaccination also, the US had taken the lead through the financing of vaccine manufacturing companies, while the EU “had been left behind”. In this sense, Bindi referred to part of the previous discussion and spoke about the relationship between the United States and Russia, emphasising that Biden “is one of the few people who understands the Russian viewpoint and their self-image as en empire.” Biden is very much aware of this attitude, and through the bilateral meeting in Geneva the US president had given Russia this recognition. Finally, Jeffrey Michaels focused on Biden’s own announcement about patents, and emphasised that the fact of informing his allies just a few hours before making a major political announcement is a characteristic of American foreign policy, and an aspect that “contrasts with the multilateralist rhetoric that Biden wishes to promote”.

The position of Catalonia in relation to the United States and Europe

The debate closed with the address of Victòria Alsina, the Catalan Minister for Foreign Action and Open Government, who emphasised the importance of the transatlantic relationship for Catalonia. She started by stressing Catalonia’s transatlantic tradition, which dates back to the year 1797, when the United States opened in Barcelona one of its first consulates in Europe. She also stressed the importance of trade between Catalonia and the United States, which she estimated as having a value of four billion dollars per year. Finally, Alsina reaffirmed Catalonia’s commitment to the European Union and the fact that “Catalonia can only envisage transatlantic relations within the framework of the EU”.

Ricardo Borges de Castro

Ricardo Borges de Castro

Ricardo Borges de Castro és director adjunt i cap del programa “Europe in the World” a l'European Policy Centre. Ha servit com a assessor en Afers Exteriors i Prospectiva Estratègica a l'European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), think tank de la Comissió Europea. El seu treball a l'EPSC es va centrar en les tendències globals, la 'democràcia anticipatòria' i el policymaking. Anteriorment, Borges havia sigut membre del gabinet i assistent personal de José Manuel Barroso, ex president de la Comissió Europea. A Portugal va ser assessor polític del Primer Ministre i assessor de polítiques d'afers exteriors al Parlament portuguès.

Jeffrey Michaels

Jeffrey H. Michaels és investigador principal de Política Exterior Americana i Seguretat Internacional a l’Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI). Anteriorment, havia treballat com a professor d'Estudis de Defensa al King's College de Londres, així com a la OTAN i al Departament de Defensa dels Estats Units. La seva recerca se centra en l'estudi de la política exterior dels EUA des de la Guerra Freda fins al present, incorporant al seus estudis de política exterior una perspectiva tant des de les ciències polítiques com des de la historia.

Federiga Bindi

Federiga Bindi

Federiga Bindi és directora del Foreign Policy Iniciative de l'Institue for Women’s Policy Research i és professora de Ciències Polítiques i càtedra Jean Monnet a la Universitat de Roma Tor Vergata. També és investigadora principal no resident al Center for Transatlantic Relations. Anteriorment, havia sigut professora visitant al Brookings Institution, l’Institute d’Études Politiques de Paris, el Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, la Universitat de Lisboa i la Université Libre de Brussel·les. Bindi ha ocupat posicions governamentals rellevants com a assessora superior del Ministeri d'Afers Exteriors d’Itàlia, directora d’Afers Internacionals i de Pràctiques Internacionals a l’Escola Nacional de l’Administració Italiana i directora de l’Institurt Italià de Cultura a Brussel·les.

Michelle Egan

Michelle Egan

Michelle Egan és professora i catedràtica Jean Monnet a l'School of International Service de l’American University, on està especialitzada en política comparada i política econòmica en relació a Europa, els Estats Units i el Canadà. La seva recerca actual se centra en comerç europeu, la governança, les relacions transatlàntiques, el Brexit, la política sub-nacional i l’imperi de la llei. Actualment, està treballant en dos llibres sobre comerç i federalisme i sobre la resposta d’Europa als canvis en l’ordre internacional.

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