Having dumped treaties, insulted leaders and formed unlikely alliances, Donald Trump has upset many in Europe as US president. But a Joe Biden election win could present its own issues, in particular for Britain’s Boris Johnson.
If Joe Biden does overcome Donald Trump in the US election, then from Wednesday next week until the moment he’s handed the keys to the Oval Office on January 20, 2021, he’d better hit the phones hard – because there are a few bruised egos out there that need to feel loved.
For a Biden victory would not only mean a tremendous pivot in the US, where clearly there are a lot of fences – and the issue of one big wall – to mend, but a complete reboot on the relationships with key historical allies across the Atlantic.
Because Trump’s approach to dealing with Europe has been something to behold. He called the historical NATO alliance “obsolete,” ex-British PM Theresa May “a fool,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel “stupid,” dubbed French President Emmanuel Macron “very, very nasty,” denounced Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s digital tax initiative as “as direct attack on technological multinationals in the US,” and has kept the EU at a frosty arm’s length, maintaining that the bloc is a direct competitor to American trade interests.
Elsewhere, he has cosied up on social media to Italian PM Giuseppe Conte – “Loves his Country greatly & works well with the USA” – and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “I get along very well with Erdoğan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says, ‘What a horrible guy.’ But, you know, for me it works out good.”
As expected, these comments have not gone down well in Berlin, Brussels or London. But having kicked over this trash can full of trash talk, Trump will most likely just stroll away, hands in pockets and whistling, leaving Biden to clear up the mess left behind.
Undoubtedly, close relations with the largest economy in the world are vital to every European nation, so forgiveness should be forthcoming for the slights suffered, with the expectation that President Biden will have a more familiar approach to dealing with his allies, stop banging on about the inequality of contributions to NATO, rejoin the Paris climate agreement, go back to the Iran nuclear deal and stop attacking the World Health Organization. These would all be welcome steps. But it won’t be smooth sailing for everyone.
With Brexit all but done, British PM Boris Johnson may find the hotline from the White House disturbingly quiet. Biden is no fan of BoJo, viewing him as a British Trump, a reckless populist prepared to trash international treaties, like the EU withdrawal agreement, and put the Biden-revered Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland in peril.
In terms of any new US-UK relationship, Biden will be asking, what’s in it for him? While the UK was a member of the EU, it was by far the preferred, and extremely useful, gateway for the US when dealing with Brussels and the wider European community. Once we were all on the same page. Spoke the same language and supported each other’s ambitions and suspicions. Not anymore.
And anyway, the intimacy afforded to Britain by EU membership is a thing of the past with the back-channeling opportunities nothing like they used to be. They’ve not disappeared, it’s just that a bit more knocking on the door is needed before someone decides to answer.
To provide a contemporary response to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s ‘Who do I call when I want to call Europe?’ it’ll be Paris or Berlin on the line. Both will be relieved to see the back of Trump. One of Merkel’s allies said this week, “We would be well advised to expect a president Joe Biden to be much more collaborative, he would be much friendlier in tone.” No kidding!
And while Macron and Trump enjoyed an early days bromance, things have cooled since then with the ‘handshake wars’ – as the French leader mocked Donald’s grip of steel, and the American’s boast that reneging on the Paris climate accord saved his country “trillions of dollars,” claiming,“Nobody else would have done it. I said it was a disaster, they basically wanted to take our wealth.” Irritating language for the French leader, who Trump also demoted to “prime minister” in the same outburst.
A Biden win would also mean a shift in dynamics on the fringes of Europe. The relationship between Turkish President Erdogan and Trump blows hot and cold, but the two have shared a weird rapport evidenced by the US president’s language in urging his Turkish counterpart – “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” – not to launch a military offensive against Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria. Erdogan ignored him.
Trump’s friendship with another fringe dweller was even more bizarre and led to an impeachment inquiry after he was accused of attempting to bribe eager-to-please Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into digging up dirt on Biden. Trump was ultimately found not guilty on the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress and acquitted in a Senate vote earlier this year.
But with this scandal still fresh in everyone’s memory, Biden is unlikely to be inclined to pursue any meaningful relationship with Kiev, and former comedian Zelensky will need something special up his sleeve if he wants to woo the Washington DC audience.
What is fundamentally clear is that if Biden wins, he will be in full control of what happens next as the European capitals seek a hard reset. The transatlantic relationships remain in a holding pattern because of the uncertainty of what lies in wait – more chaos and controversy from Trump, or a return to internationally respected protocols and more familiar language under Biden.
Next Tuesday’s result is certainly no done deal and not everyone, by a long shot, necessarily wants to see Biden win. A second-term Trump would most likely be a different beast than what we have witnessed in the past four years.
And while Europe holds its breath, America decides if that’s what it really wants.