Transatlanticism is back again in Washington, or at least, that is the message coming from the Biden Administration. While I would argue that it never left, a central place for America’s European allies in the policy priorities of the new President is a good thing.
The nuts and bolts of the U.S. relationship with Europe will not change, intelli-gence and security ties which were strengthened under the Trump Administration will continue, as will the U.S. commitment to collective defense through NATO’s Article V.
President Biden has so far iced the ill-considered plans to withdraw nearly 12,000 troops from bases in Germany. In addition, the recent deployment of four B1 bombers to Norway sends an important message to Russia, while showcasing the strong bilateral relationship the U.S. enjoys with Norway. Underscoring the increasing geopolitical importance of the Arctic region, on March 9, a B1 landed at Bodø Air Station, the first time a U.S. bomber has landed inside the Arctic Circle.
However, early in the Biden term, there are worrying signs on both sides of the Atlantic. In the U.S., while the Administration has said the right things about the harmful North Stream II pipeline project, early indications are that at the decisive moment the U.S. is poised to fold, thus sacrificing the hard won efforts of the Trump Administration to arrest construction at the altar of a supposed re-proachement with Germany.
Signs from Europe are also concerning. The agreement in December of EU – China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) emptied the wind from the sails of President Biden before he had even taken office. This was of course by design and the obvious Chinese President Xi Jinping came through with last minute concessions to seal the deal.
The CAI despite what many in Europe argue, goes well beyond the U.S.-China Phase One Agreement, and if approved by the EU Council and EU Parliament, will further bind EU economies with China. It is a significant political win for Beijing designed to fracture the transatlantic alliance, ensure continued access for Chinese companies to vital European intellectual property and know-how. It does not however, protect European companies from the long-term threat posed by state supported Chinese businesses who will seek to devour entire industries in Europe once they have attained critical mass, with the backing of the state.
Europe’s investment screening mechanisms are woefully inadequate for addressing security concerns from Chinese investments, takeovers, and public procurement bids. Consider that despite considerably stronger awareness of the security risks of Chinese investments, as well as an EU wide toolkit for investment screening that launched in March 2019, Chinese companies won European public procurement contracts worth €2 billion in 2020, double the contract amounts won the year prior.
Another prime example of concerning signals was the disastrous early February visit to Russia by Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. To say nothing of timing, in a press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Borrell criticized U.S. policy towards Cuba under the Trump Administration, seemed to equate excessive use of force in Russia with supposed excessive use of force in the U.S., and congratulated Russia on the “success” of its Sputnik vaccine. Criticism became so strong that Borrell took to the pages of Der Spiegel to defend his performance admitting he “probably should have indulged my desire to argue a little more in front of the cameras.”
If there are warning clouds on the horizon, what areas of convergence are there for the U.S. and Europe? In regard to the U.S. and EU, the Biden Administration should focus on areas where there is mutual interests; for instance, the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), strengthening investment-screening mechanisms in Europe, or building on recent successes in the Balkans.
3SI is a smart, strategic initiative, which has the potential to maintain consistent bipartisan support across U.S. administrations. It is also an initiative which complements existing EU infrastructure investment funding flowing to Eastern Europe. A connected, prosperous, and secure Eastern Europe is good for the EU and the U.S. and pays economic and geopolitical dividends which further strengthen the transatlantic alliance. The U.S. and EU should therefore do everything in their power to ensure the continued success of 3SI.
Likewise, the Balkans are a region which deserves continued attention from both the EU and U.S. The focused attention of the Trump Administration on the region helped tee up the economic normalization agreement signed by Kosovo and Serbia in September.
The EU should continue to seek positive engagement in the Balkans, despite the roadblocks to accession remaining for countries like Albania and North Macedonia. The Balkans contain both incredible potential and well as the risk for igniting significant problems in Europe’s backyard.
In addition to remaining home to unfinished business in Europe, outside actors including China, Russia, and Turkey pose challenges to ensuring the region remains stable and on a westward trajectory.
The pandemic has opened the door further to Chinese and Russian inroads. Both are wielding vaccine diplomacy to their advantage in the Balkans with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, all using vaccines from one or both nations.
Serbia which already partners with Chinese companies to utilize artificial intelli-gence (AI) for surveillance cameras in Belgrade, has further utilized Chinese AI to aid its vaccine rollout.
The interminable gray zone that many Balkan nations continue to exist, opens space for outside actors to exploit. The U.S. and Europe have shared interests in the Balkans and must keep it high on the transatlantic agenda.
The elephant in the room of U.S. – EU relations is China. The December publi-cation of the Commission’s, “new EU – U.S. agenda for global change,” included the word “China” only six times out of 4,500 words, calling it “a negotiating partner for cooperation, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival.” How the Commission intends to untangle that obvious oxymoron is left unaddressed.
Diplomatically, the U.S. and EU need to be singing from the same song sheet in regards to China’s gross human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its continued crack-downs in Hong Kong, threats against Taiwan, and cowering of any political entity or companies which do not toe the Chinese Communist Party Line.
Indeed last month’s disturbing reports of China’s intimidation campaign against Hong Kong residents living in Europe should serve as a further call for the need of united transatlantic action against Chinese bullying.
Moving forward, the U.S. should seek to convince the EU to reject the CAI, at the same time, the U.S. and Europe should work together to bolster Europe’s inadequate investment screening mechanisms and to secure vital telecommunications networks.
For the next few years at minimum the lasting effect of the worldwide pandemic will impact transatlantic relations. As the transatlantic community slowly climbs its way out of the Covid-19 stupor, lingering issues will need to be addressed, budget shortfalls, how best to secure supply chains in critical sectors, while building in much needed redundancy, and rolling back onerous restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so. On the latter, the U.S. must strive to work with Europe to develop mechanisms that combine the greatest safety with the maximum freedom of travel and commerce, and which are removed as soon as is possible.
These areas which I have enumerated are some which the U.S. and EU can and should find common cause. There are areas where either convergence or tangible results will be harder to come by. Consider President Biden’s proposal for a summit for democracy, which Brussels has been supportive of. One suspect the Commission is more interested in the U.S. joining admonitions against purportedly recalcitrant Eastern European nations, rather than targeting the world’s genuinely undemocratic nations. If this turns out to be true, then it is an outcome which weakens the transatlantic alliance rather than strengthens it.
Similarly, disturbing is the EU’s calls for an EU – U.S. Security and Defense Dialogue and a greater EU role in defense. Nothing would strain the transatlantic bond more and undermine NATO faster than EU defense integration. Decades of similar aspirations and proposals from Brussels have led to little or no additional defense capability.
Finally, while the EU has feted the decision of the Biden Administration to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, ideas on reigning in Chinese and Indian emissions have failed to materialize. To believe Beijing and New Delhi will change their tack because of some grand EU – U.S. shared commitment to carbon neutrality strains credulity.
As we have seen there are important and concrete areas of convergence for the U.S. and EU, however, there is also a real risk that attainable progress on these issues will be overshadowed by Washington and Brussels chasing flashy pronounce-ments and agreements which lack substance and will fail to yield results.
Finally, for the U.S., it is important to remember that Europe is more than just the EU. While the U.S. should pursue cooperation with the EU on areas of mutual interest where Brussels has competencies, the U.S. should also seek to strengthen its bilateral relationships with key allies, engage with regional groupings like the Visegrád Four, and always remember to maintain NATO’s central role in U.S. policy in Europe.
* Senior Policy Analyst in European Affairs, Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC