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EU struggles to ‘Trump-proof’ its relations with Washington

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Welcome to EURACTIV’s Global Europe Brief, your weekly update on the EU from a global perspective.

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In this week’s edition: A week of crises talks, discontent with Von der Leyen’s Israel stance and inconclusive Cairo Peace summit.

Europeans are increasingly exploring how to ‘Trump-proof’ the recovered transatlantic relationship in case former US President Donald Trump – or another unpredictable candidate – wins next year’s US presidential election. But they’re likely to face one big obstacle: themselves.

When the first EU-US summit in the Biden era took place in Brussels in June 2021,  the sealing of a deal on aircraft was hoped to herald a phase of new trade – and transatlantic – cooperation.

The good intentions were put on the backburner the year after when both sides were forced to focus on crisis diplomacy over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The idea at this week’s second summit was to deliver a message of unity on the Israel-Hamas and Ukraine wars, despite worries that political paralysis in Washington could hamper America’s aid for its allies.

Officials in both capitals these days insist relations between Brussels and Washington are closer than ever.

But with trade tensions simmering and Biden’s trade policy still having much in common with his predecessor’s America First approach, no observers really held their breath to see tangible outcomes of this week’s talks.

On the eve of Friday’s summit, both sides of the Atlantic had hoped to settle trade disputes, including on European steel imports, which were targeted by tariffs imposed in 2018 under then-president Trump. While Biden did suspend them in 2021, Europeans fear they could be reactivated if no deal is reached by year’s end.

The clock is also ticking on other crucial economic matters.

There was also no agreement on critical minerals — under Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), companies must source a certain percentage of critical minerals for electric car batteries from the US or its free trade partners to be eligible for incentives.

Europe fears its subsidies for clean energy tech will enable US companies to out-compete their European rivals. Critics so far have pointed out that there is no overarching European strategy to counter the US subsidy package.

“We look forward to continuing to make progress on these important objectives in the next two months,” the final leaders’ summit communiqué stated.

But what happens after the November 2024 US presidential elections is less clear as increasing numbers of EU officials and diplomats these days are haunted by the spectre of what could happen when the US administration changes next November.

Over the past few months, European Commission officials and senior trade officials from EU member states have started discussing what it would take to ‘Trump-proof’  current standing deals, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

This would also include preparing for much tougher trade negotiations on the day ‘after’ should no deals be reached by the end of the current Biden administration, they said.

European governments, such as Germany, over the past months, have also increasingly started building ties with Republican officials and are trying to identify people who might end up being close to another Trump administration.

A second term, European top officials fear, could be worse than the first, also due to the prospect of a deteriorated inner-American political discourse.

The main trouble with a change in US leadership, however, might emerge elsewhere.

Brussels and Washington agree on helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia and supporting Israel in its fight against Hamas. They to some degree also converge on wanting to curb an increasingly assertive China and reach out to the Global South – for now.

Biden made a rare Oval Office address last night calling for the divided US Congress to commit to back a $106 billion aid package including military assistance for Ukraine and Israel.

“We stood together to support the brave people of Ukraine in the face of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s aggression,” Biden said. “We’re standing together now to support Israel in the wake of Hamas’s appalling terrorist attack.”

European Council President Charles Michel said the EU and US were “forging a united front”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who gave a speech at the Hudson Institute, an American conservative think tank, said there was “no room for hesitation or half measures” in the West’s support for Ukraine and called on the EU’s allies “to double down — whether on finance or equipment”.

“Europe intends to step up,” she said, adding: “We recognise that US support should be one important piece of a global effort.”

But the US Congress has now been paralysed for more than two weeks as divided Republicans, who hold the majority in the House of Representatives, failed for a third time to elect a new House speaker. Congress also faces a 17 November deadline to act on the budget, so as to avoid a possible government shutdown.

For many, it’s the first taste of uncertainty looming next year on the other side of the Atlantic. But over the past year it has also become clear that to counter a Trump-led White House, Europe would need to speak with one voice, especially on geopolitical issues.

But the EU has been struggling to present a united front since the crisis erupted, with von der Leyen facing a backlash for not publicly calling for restraint from Israel as it responds to the Hamas attacks.

According to many EU capitals, the lack of coordination and the two past weeks of EU internal disarray over messaging on the Israel-Palestine conflict, have seriously damaged the bloc’s unity, so carefully crafted after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

“If we are to deal with Trump or the likes of him in the White House next year, we just can’t have a situation like over the last two weeks, where we send mixed messages to our partners worldwide,” one EU diplomat said.

Those divisions were also on display in Washington: Michel held a bilateral meeting with Biden in the Oval Office ahead of the summit talks, while von der Leyen joined Biden for a scheduled walk through the Rose Garden after the talks.

EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell, who had not originally been scheduled to attend Friday’s summit at the White House, joined the EU-US summit as Brussels sought to present a united foreign policy front.

But while tensions between von der Leyen and Michel are not confined to the current crisis in the Middle East – and have previously emerged over China and other matters – they could be there to stay with a second term of office for the former.

“It’s true that it has always been a problem to work out who speaks for Europe on foreign policy, but we might need to finally find a fix to this and streamline our processes if we want others to listen to us,” a second EU diplomat said.


CRISES, CRISES Thu-Fri, 14-15 December 2023

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