The 2020 US presidential elections, held on 3 November 2020, culminated in the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States, marking the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. At the NEXTEUK event on ‘The Impact of the US Elections on Europe and the Future EU-UK Relationship,’ Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer (Director of Research, Paris Office-German Marshall Fund), Christian Lequesne (Professor at Sciences Po), and Richard Johnson, (Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London) offered their views on the impact of the incoming Biden presidency for Europe, the transatlantic relationship, a UK-US trade deal, and future European Union (EU)-United Kingdom (UK) relations. These views are particularly relevant in light of the upcoming transfer of power between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on 20 January, and confirmation that the Democratic Party has gained control of the Senate following the run-off election in the US state of Georgia.
Written by Tinahy Andriamasomanana, Queen Mary, University of London
The Transatlantic Relationship
The speakers, de Hoop Scheffer, Lequesne, and Johnson, agreed that the incoming Biden presidency signals a significant shift in the transatlantic relationship. In the past four years, Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric has largely been disruptive to transatlantic relations, between the US and the EU. The Trump administration has been opposed to European integration, with Trump voicing his support for Brexit and pro-Brexit parties. As Lequesne argues, the Trump administration also supported anti-establishment populist politicians in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia. In contrast, Biden’s victory largely signals a renewed commitment to multilateralism.
The speakers agree that Biden will adopt a less hostile foreign policy rhetoric regarding the EU. But president-elect Joe Biden faces a considerable challenge, due to the erosion of trust between the EU and the US under the Trump administration. The focus of Biden’s rhetoric has been to restore US leadership, but this restoration takes place in a world that is less willing to accept it, as de Hoop Scheffer argues. Biden will have to rebuild trust between the US and its traditional allies, including Europe. The future of the transatlantic relationship is also closely linked to the Chinese question, as argued by de Hoop Scheffer. There is the view, within the Biden administration, that the US and the EU will need to work together to fight Chinese trade practices that are deemed unfair for US businesses. Lequesne argues that shift in US presidential administration should signify an incentive for the EU to review its own strategic policy regarding China.
Overall, the speakers agreed that unity and cohesion across Europe is essential for the future of the transatlantic relationship. Europe will have to be much more strategic concerning its foreign policy priorities and interests. As de Hoop Scheffer argues, it will be necessary for Europe to consider its long-term objectives, beyond the next four years under the Biden administration.
‘Trumpism’ in the United States and Populism in Europe
The speakers agreed that although the incoming Biden presidency is a victory, it is a small victory. Biden’s foreign policies aims of strengthening international institutions, renewing alliances, and acting on climate change, have been viewed positively. However, despite Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential elections, Trumpism is still present, and will continue to be present, in the United States. In the past four years, there has been a significant transformation of the Republican party, with a growing populist trend.
There are also differences between the US and the EU that transcend the Trump administration. For example, the long-running dispute over the failure of some NATO member states to meet defense spending targets. Disagreements between the US and the EU on how to deal with Chinese trade practices still persist. It is also unlikely that populist trends, on either side of the Atlantic will rapidly disappear. The speakers agree that Biden’s victory does not signal the end of populism in the western world. The majority of centre-left parties in Europe no longer have the monopoly over the discourse on social policy, according to Lequesne. But Biden’s victory in the 2020 US elections, does encourage democratic opposition against populist governments across Europe, as Lequesne argues.
The challenges facing the Biden administration can be further illustrated by the close results of the 2020 US presidential elections. The close election results confirm that Trump has managed to increase his electoral support, in the past four years. Biden’s electoral college majority rests on a smaller number of votes in the key states. Biden’s electoral college majority rests on a margin of less than 45,000 votes. There is still a considerable amount of electoral power behind Donald Trump and much of what he stands for. As Johnson argues, Biden’s victory is largely based on the consolidation of the anti-Trump electorate, which largely consisted of third-party candidate supporters.
There are also limits on what Biden will be able to achieve during his presidency. If Biden is unable to secure a Democratic majority in the Senate, this is likely to constrain his ability to implement his legislative agenda. If the Republicans are likely to hold the Senate, this will severely constrain executive branch appointments that Biden will be able make, including the Cabinet. According to Johnson, if Biden is unable to secure a Democratic majority in the US Senate, we are likely to see a foreign policy-oriented first term Biden administration. The Biden administration might re-direct its focus on foreign policy, as it is less constrained than in domestic policy matters. This would set the Biden administration apart from the first Obama administration, which largely focused on domestic policy matters. Johnson argues that during the first months of his presidency Biden could reverse Trump’s policy changes through the use of his executive branch powers. The Biden administration could seek re-entry to the Paris climate accords and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal), re-instate US membership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), and re-establish US support for United Nations (UN) agencies. But if the Republicans hold the Senate, Biden will not be able to pass any meaningful legislation in the areas of immigration, healthcare, or climate change.
According to de Hoop Scheffer, there is also an inherent tension within the Biden administration, between those who would prefer a return to classic US leadership (i.e. a return to the Barack Obama era), and those who are pushing to update US policies, in light of recent challenges, such as climate change.
The US-UK ‘Special Relationship’ and the UK-EU Brexit Trade Agreement
The conventional wisdom is that the Biden administration may have a negative impact on the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US. But Johnson argues that the incoming Biden presidency is unlikely to mark a significant change in the UK and US ‘special relationship.’ Restoring the transatlantic relationship under the Biden administration is unlikely to shift the focus of US engagement on Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, rather than London. The main difference between the Biden and Trump administrations on relations with the UK, will be a difference in style, according to the speakers. The Biden administration is more likely to adopt a diplomatic approach. Many of the key pillars of the UK-US relationship, such as the UK-US economic relationship, have survived the Trump presidency. The Biden administration will seek to strengthen the special relations between the US and the UK, which include trade, tourism, and education.
The rhetoric of the Biden administration regarding Brexit, and the UK-EU trade agreement has shifted in comparison to the Trump administration. In contrast to Trump, Biden has been sceptical of Brexit. The negotiations between the UK and the EU for a trade agreement formally ended on 24 December 2020, with an agreement approved in principle by the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula van de Leyen. In the period leading up to the trade agreement, the Trump presidency offered the UK government an ‘escape route,’ Johnson argues. In the case of a no-deal Brexit, Trump signalled that a UK-US trade was possible. In contrast, Biden has made it clear that this was not an option.
Photo credits:Reuters/François Lenoir