Europe weighs its drive for ‘strategic autonomy’ as the Biden era beckons

Trump was a herald for longer-lasting structural changes in the transatlantic relationship

Sam Fleming and Michael Peel in Brussels 3 HOURS AGO

The EU’s desire to stand on its own two feet in a hostile world of great power conflict was propelled in significant measure by the bitterly adversarial nature of its relations with Donald Trump. 

The question for Brussels and the member states’ capitals now will be how that agenda of “strategic autonomy” needs to adapt given their fervent hopes for a more collaborative relationship with his Democratic successor, Joe Biden. 

Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, made his country’s ambitions for a fresh start abundantly clear on Saturday night, as senior politicians from across the EU transmitted their words of congratulations and open relief at the result. 

Now was time for a “relaunch in transatlantic relations” — a New Deal — Mr Maas argued, with the US and EU closing ranks in areas such as China, climate change and the fight against Covid-19. In her own policy list, Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, spoke of a “renewed global partnership”, mentioning digital policy, common security and “reforming the rules-based multilateral system”. 

The EU’s push for more harmonious relations with the US echoes overtures at the end of the George W Bush era, when Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister, proposed a “new dimension of co-operation”.

Among the possible early wins is the opportunity to de-escalate their long-running dispute over aircraft subsidies as well as the broader clashes stoked by Mr Trump’s pursuit of trade protectionism. On foreign policy, EU officials hope for more of a chance to work with the US on big international themes such as reviving the Iran nuclear deal and World Health Organization reform. 

But the scope for co-operation by no means obviates the need for greater “strategic autonomy” in Europe — a policy that is subject to competing definitions but boils down to a drive for greater self-reliance. The advent of Mr Trump proved that the US can no longer be taken for granted as a partner and ally for the EU, but the two sides’ strategic priorities were already on divergent paths before his inauguration in 2017. 

America’s foreign policy focus arguably rests more in Asia than in transatlantic relations, and the country’s appetite for engagement in the EU’s backyard has diminished in recent decades. The incoming Biden administration’s focus will be on domestic priorities — notably fighting a devastating virus and handling its domestic economic fallout — in a Washington that remains hobbled by partisan rancour.

As Manfred Weber, head of the centre-right European People’s party group in the European parliament, put it, the EU can no longer trust that the US acts as its “big brother” leading the west in global challenges.

“We should expect America to take a lot of time to deal with its own domestic issues and internal divisions,” he said in an interview. “That is why we have to work on our autonomy and look for greater European sovereignty in the years to come — including in our economic, defence and digital capabilities.”

After all, the EU’s strategic autonomy agenda is in significant measure a response to the rise of a more assertive and threatening Beijing — something that will by no means change. Concerns that the EU is too technologically reliant on China will remain as acute as ever.

Meanwhile on defence policy, the US will not be as engaged in the European neighbourhood as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Mr Trump may have been notably aggressive in his calls for Nato allies to bolster spending on their militaries but Washington has pressed for them to do so for decades spanning multiple presidential administrations.

And even if a warming of US-EU relations is in the works, no one knows who will follow Mr Biden in the White House. The more isolationist, nativist current in US politics is not going to suddenly disappear, points out Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre. 

Mr Trump’s impending departure is unquestionably a big moment for Europe — not least because of the marked improvement in diplomatic tone that it heralds. We can expect a great deal of relieved talk about “shared values” between the two sides, including a common belief in the value of international co-operation. Authoritarian leaders around the world, including in Europe, should prepare for an icy blast from Washington.

But in one sense, Mr Trump has been merely an undiplomatic forerunner for structural changes in the transatlantic relationship far bigger and longer-lasting than his one-term presidency.

“There is ample scope for a reset in tune, but I am more sceptical when it comes to substance,” said Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization. “For Mr Biden the top priority will be domestic policy. When it comes to international affairs the focus will be Asia first, and then somehow Europe.” 

Link to the FT article