There is no question among European leaders preparing for President Biden’s arrival in Brussels this week that reinstating the United States in the global conversation is a good thing—especially after a largely glowing G7 reception in the U.K. But Brussels is different, and in many ways the stakes are much higher for Biden, who just spent the weekend focused on China and will have to pivot to Russia, another country that evokes different opinions. This is especially true when it comes to energy politics: Russia is building a gas pipeline to supply Europe with Russian gas.
At the end of the summit of the world’s wealthiest nations, Biden proudly touted his success in persuading the others to explicitly condemn China in the joint statement. But the EU leaders who signed on seemed to be backing away immediately.
Biden said in his closing remarks: “Everyone at the table understood and understands both the seriousness and the challenges that we’re up against, and the responsibility of our proud democracies to step up and deliver for the rest of the world.”
They may have understood what Biden wanted, but did they agree? French, Italian and German leaders sought to water down anything that looked like antagonism toward China. Italian headlines on Sunday screamed that Draghi had been able to “tone down” anti-China rhetoric, giving the prime minister credit for convincing Biden that China should not be named as a "rival” in the final statement. French president Emanuel Macron also stepped back, saying the “G7 is not a club that is hostile to China” despite Biden’s obvious desire to suggest otherwise.
Most EU leaders prefer Biden to Donald Trump, but they don’t believe Biden’s arrival on the world stage means all is well across the pond. “He’s more straightforward. There is a common agenda, especially post-COVID,” Susi Dennison, Senior Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Daily Beast. “But underneath is concern what Biden’s engagement means for Europe. They are excited but skeptical. There is an overriding sense that the U.S. political system is broken.”
The fact that Trump still carries the Republican party and may reappear on the political stage in 2024 worries many Europeans who fear a return to global instability. And while Biden’s assurances on Monday that the U.S. supports NATO in contrast to Trump’s constant bashing of the alliance are sure to be welcomed, there are many other issues that will be harder to swallow including climate change policies, steel and aluminum tariffs and the struggle between American tech companies and European taxes.
Some Europeans have expressed dismay at John Kerry, in particular, who referred to climate change as an “unprecedented wealth creation opportunity” when he was named Biden’s climate czar.
The European Green Deal, which promises to cut greenhouse emissions in Europe to zero by 2050, for example, set the pace in the global fight to save the planet, and perhaps more importantly showed that the EU could do things on their own, without either the U.K. or the U.S. That was until Biden pledged $2 trillion into green energy and tech—roughly twice the entire EU budget—and was lauded for an incredible step in the right direction. But Biden’s plan will only halve U.S. emissions by 2030.
The EU was forced to grow more cohesive thanks both to the Trump years and Brexit. “The U.S. is seen now more as a strategic partner than an ally,” Dennison says. “There are warm words on things like climate in public, but behind the scenes acceptance of the reality.”
Perhaps the most difficult issue for the EU to come to terms with is where the U.S. stands post Brexit. A recent poll shows that just 21 percent of Europeans consider the U.S. and U.K. allies, down considerably from a decade ago.
While Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson forged their own new post-Brexit relationship over the weekend, many in Europe were wondering what was happening in the back rooms and what promises were made between the U.S. and U.K. that will be fleshed out later.
The EU and U.K. are in a delicate situation with trade and, more recently, tourism as the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of weakening and the U.K. has robbed Europe of British tourism dollars by placing tight restrictions on travel. There have been no real breakthroughs in a comprehensive and far-reaching trade deal while the U.K. weighs its relationship with the U.S.
China’s Belt and Road initiative, which many European nations had hoped would fill some of the gap created by Brexit, is a thorn in Biden’s side.
The U.S. president was able to convince E.U. leaders to demand a response from China over concerns that the coronavirus pandemic started in a Chinese lab, as well as calling them out directly for human rights abuses in Xinjiang province, but the new plan for a rival Silk Road initiative—the $40 trillion Build Back Better World (B3W) plan—does not look like a realistic rival to the Chinese infrastructure fund which has been taken up in around 100 countries all over the world.
Italy found itself in the crosshairs of Biden’s China mission most directly. It was the first European country to sign on to the Chinese investment scheme, which the U.S. has set out to undermine through the G7—where Italy is one of the members.
On Sunday night—a few hours after signing on to help create the G7’s rival investment fund—Italy announced that it would review its 2019 deal to join the New Silk Road initiative. Italy’s new prime minister Mario Draghi, a staunch Europhile as former head of the European Central Bank, strained credulity by claiming the subject had never come up during hours of intensive negotiations that reportedly went on late into the night. “The theme of Italy’s accession to the Silk Road launched by China was never mentioned,” he said at his G7 press conference.
A senior Italian official brushed off any suggestion that Italy would pull out of the deal entirely—Draghi’s coalition supports it so it would almost certainly mean the end of his tenure if he turned his back on China.
Another bone of contention has been the vaccine giveaway. The G7 announced that it would donate a billion vaccines to the developing world, but most of Europe is still unvaccinated after the EU struggled early on with its vaccine rollout—no EU country is yet close to herd immunity. Biden denied that any pressure had been applied to the European leaders to agree.
“Our vaccine donations don’t include pressure for favors or potential concessions,” he said. “We’re doing this to save lives, to end this pandemic, that’s it.”
Whatever the motivation, the U.S. and U.K. have been eager to urge EU and other G7 countries to donate vaccines they essentially don’t have for their own citizens to poorer countries. “Biden certainly ruffled feathers on his vaccine announcement,” Dennison said. “EU leaders would have liked to have been consulted.”
The upcoming meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin throws another TransAtlantic dispute into the limelight. The U.S. threatened to sanction German companies working on a new Russian pipeline that will bring cheap gas directly into Europe, but ultimately pulled back after Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded such deterrents “would negatively impact U.S. relations with Germany, the EU and other European allies and partners.” The dispute will be yet another obstacle in Brussels as Biden slaloms the fine line between Russia and the EU.