Biden’s Lead Is Bittersweet For America’s Allies

There are still numerous uncertainties surrounding the U.S. presidential election, but the good news for the European Union is that its unofficial preferred candidate, Joe Biden, looks close to taking the White House. A defeat of Donald Trump, if that’s how the race ends, would mean the 27-member bloc can avoid four more years of aggressive trade wars, attacks on multilateral institutions and erratic behavior.

The bad news is that a narrow and contested Biden win would be messy for transatlantic ties, especially if the Senate remains in the hands of the Republicans. With such a result, Biden’s agenda would be hamstrung by a divided Congress, leaving even less time for a fully engaged foreign policy. 

That means Europeans can’t afford to sit back and wait to see what happens. Whoever wins, the EU will need to step up in defining its own path and reducing its reliance on the U.S. The last four years can’t be dismissed as a blip; Trump’s robust performance in the 2020 vote demonstrates that. As extreme as he’s been, he accelerated a long-term trend: A U.S. increasingly indifferent or hostile to a more assertive Europe and more focused on containing China and pivoting to Asia. If a Biden administration can’t govern effectively at home, any big reset with Europe looks doubtful. 

Even before the count is over, this wake-up call is rippling through Brussels, Paris and Berlin. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has called the contested vote an “explosive” situation, a much more caustic take than her recent speech proposing a far-reaching Western alliance that would come with more German military spending. That proposal looks “wishful” in hindsight, says Jacob Kirkegaard of the German Marshall Fund. If Trump wins, all bets are off; if it’s Biden, despite the friendlier tone, he likely won’t have the freedom or interest to radically refashion the West.

It’s an especially timely opportunity for French President Emmanuel Macron. He’s repeatedly pointed to the U.S. and U.K. retreat from the postwar liberal order as evidence that the EU needs to get better at looking after its own interests. Trumpism revved up his ambitions for a more “geopolitical Europe” and brought traditionally hesitant Germany on board in areas of cooperation such as defense and technology. Bidenism would give the EU more time to get there, but it wouldn’t change the direction of travel.

Where Macron needs to tread carefully is in taking care to build support across the EU, rather than just in Berlin. The bloc is in no shape yet to replace the NATO security umbrella, given the departure of the U.K. as the only other member state with nuclear capabilities. There’s also the matter of Eastern countries who fear a more self-reliant EU means less protection against Russian provocations.

The best near-term opportunity is using the EU’s single market of 450 million consumers as a way to wield economic influence with both the U.S. and China. Regulatory tools such as foreign-investment screening, sanctions against unfair state subsidies and tech-sector restrictions are being rolled out. France this week raced to slap a controversial tech tax on the likes of Amazon Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to get the jump on a stalled wider OECD process that had been undermined by Trump.

The Europeans are serious when it comes to setting the rules for their own turf and that’s something even a President Biden might take a dim view of, according to Erik Brattberg, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Under Barack Obama, the U.S. accused the EU of protectionism when dealing with Silicon Valley.

By taking the initiative early, Europe could offer the U.S. help with its trade agenda. An alliance with America to beef up global oversight of trade-distorting subsidies from Beijing would be an effective one, and also allow Europeans to ask for more support for their own home-grown policy initiatives, like defense, in return.

Whichever way this contest goes, a divided America will have to work to heal itself. For Europe, it’s the turning point to accept there’s no going back to a golden age. If it’s going to ever have a hope of sitting at the top table as a power-bloc beyond trade, there’s no time to waste.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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