January 22, 2021

Did the Trump presidency push the EU to take global leadership?

Following the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, many European leaders expressed renewed optimism and wholehearted support for the new US administration. Since November, when the election result became clear and Joe Biden was set to become the 46th President of The United States, speculations have abounded on what this would mean for the future of EU-US relations. The relationship between the EU and the US has a long history and it has been shaped by common political concerns, integrated economies and strong cultural ties.

One thing that has characterized US foreign policy during the last four years of the Trump administration has been a withdrawal from multilateral organisations and agreements. Amongst those most known about are the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organisation. Overall this has sparked a vacuum of leadership in the global arena. This has been a vacuum that Europe at first found it difficult to deal with and respond to, as the US has conventionally been a big brother that EU leaders could always look to in times of trouble. With the new Biden administration rejoining the WHO and re-entering the Paris Accord, strong, yet symbolic, signals are being made that the US is now turning its attention back towards a multilateral system and multinational institutions. 

The vacuum had sparked a new approach and new developments in European foreign affairs, probably best captured by Emmanuel Macron's idea of ‘European strategic autonomy’, which includes a strengthening of European sovereignty in global affairs and a reduction in dependence for big European industries. This approach has sought to create ‘european giants’ in business generally and especially in pharmaceuticals, underpinned by the abolition of national veto powers in EU foreign policy matters. Macron's notion of strategic autonomy came in the wake of Angela Merkel's 2017 election rally speech in Munich, where she was quoted as saying:

‘The era in which we could fully count on others is somewhat over… ...And so all I can say is that we, Europeans, must take our destiny into our own hands.’ 

This marked a shift in Germany’s and Europe’s priorities at a moment of much needed cohesion, when the UK was leaving the Union and the US was largely viewed as unreliable in terms of security policy. In October 2020 , European Council President Charles Michell said ‘European strategic autonomy is goal number one for our generation. For Europe, this is the real start of the 21st Century’. Ursula von der Leyen named her Commission a geopolitical commission in the summer of 2019, seeking to make the Commission a common strategic voice for Europeans.

These shifts in tone and signals of a revised European purpose on the international stage, remarked by European leaders in a global context characterised by US isolationism, show that priorities and attitudes have significantly changed, from being highly reliant on US expertise and alliances to increasingly pursuing a more independent path. This is best illustrated by the subsequent China-EU investment agreement that was agreed upon between Christmas and the New Year. The agreement commits both parties to be open for investments on an equal footing, without forcing companies to reveal technology secrets. Negotiations leading up to the agreement had been ongoing for years, and many saw the late Chinese concessions as a move from their side to reach a deal before the new US administration entered office in January. The deal has received heavy criticism because it codifies cooperation with China during an epoch in which the US increasingly sees China as a systemic rival and is trying to contain Chinese influence abroad. 

The agreement can be seen as a sign of a new, more independent EU foreign policy doctrine based on European strategic autonomy principles whereby the EU will increasingly act as a sovereign entity, less externally coordinated and more detached from US policy positions. The level of autonomy does of course depend on the policy area in question. With the Strategic autonomy doctrine, we can expect to see European leadership in trade policy, global climate change governance and a push to increase their influence in international organisations, filling out the last four years of vacuum after the US. 

The times before Trump, when the EU tended to follow American leadership in global affairs, are arguably over, and the new US administration will have to take this into consideration in its future foreign policy development.

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