Author: Balázs Sean Brandt
2020 was undoubtedly a crazy year for world politics. But not just for politics, everyone was affected by the international trends and mechanisms one way or another. But even in our radically transformed quarantined life, there was something that brought people’s attention to one issue, a great political moment. Or rather, hours and days of uncertainty around who might be next leader of ‘the free world’. Even outsiders to politics were glued to the screens in the last couple of weeks.
Everyone had an opinion, a favoured conspiracy theory. Some were shouting ‘stop the count’, while many protesters yelled ‘count the votes’. Ironically, in some cases, we saw people in both camps with the same political affiliations. The US presidential election was a genuine global spectacle, and a perfectly researchable case study for political analysists. People attributed great importance to the election, because, and it is hard to deny, the person who sits in the presidential seat in the White House has very considerable influence on international politics. Many felt rejoice, some even burst into tears, and some certain other has started a rather iconic twitter campaign. Even though many people reject to accept the result of the election, it is now a certainty the Joseph Biden has defeated Donald Trump, and he will be the 46th president of the United States. After hearing the news a sense of relief flowed through Europe as well. But what exactly does a Biden presidency have in store for the European Union, and what changes should we expect in transatlantic relations after he assumes his position in the Oval office? This article discusses how will the Biden presidency affect European Strategic Autonomy.
Strategic Autonomy has become sort of a call-word for European politicians. There has been many guessing going on around what exactly1 a European Strategic Autonomy entails, and even more on how it should be achieved. Those pushing the idea argue that the EU must be more independent and that in times of uncertainty when the world order is in transition, the Union should rely on no other international actor but on itself. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Union has been aspiring to become a genuine global actor. In 2016 Federica Mogherini presented the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS) which was supposed to equip the Union with a reliable and doable strategy on foreign policy. However, just like in many other policy areas, after agreeing on a shared vision, the follow through was lacking common action. And time to time, when it came to external policies, the Union proved to be a sum of individual foreign policy actors, rather than an international player. But the aspiration remained for some European leaders, and their new go-to become European Strategic Autonomy. They understood that the Russian-resurgence, the unpredictable foreign policies of the Trump administration, and with China extending its sphere of influence, the Union must not remain so reactive and geopolitically passive. Undoubtedly, European citizens and the world need a strong European Union like never before. But unfortunately, lining-up behind a call-word that’s meaning is not clear is definitely not the way to do so. It requires doable action plans, a reformed European External Actions Service, and cooperation between member states rather than internal discrepancies. But now, let’s just focus on the changes that might be possibly introduced by Biden administration to the world order and to European foreign policy. Following the elections, news sources on this side of the Atlantic were loud from the heated debate between Annegrette Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s Minister of Defence, and French president Emmanual Macron on the Strategic Autonomy. Kramp-Karrenbaur, upon assessing the future of EU- US relations claimed3 that the EU must rely strongly on his military and economic ally, or even subdue itself to Uncle Sam, as the Strategic Autonomy is not a deliverable action plan but something close to an illusion in European foreign policy. Macron, on the other hand argued for the further strengthening of the EU’s military and economic capabilities to become more independent, and thus becoming a reliable strategic partner with a more outward looking profile. Along this debate, I will introduce the key characteristics of the new chapter in transatlantic relations and will assess how the EU must balance between being the desperate follower of US foreign policy and being a lone warrior in the era of predictable unpredictability.
America leading again
First, we must take a look at the radical changes the Biden administration will bring to international affairs, and how these will influence European decision-making. In the last four years US foreign policy was characterised by the ‘America First’ policy. The historical hegemonic role of the United States was put to question on charges of immaturity, and rushed decisions. Countries lost trust in the Trump’s administration, and they could do nothing but watch the US being pulled out of the JCPOA, the WHO, and the Paris Agreement. Quite an important list, right? Undoubtedly, there was a lot of damage done to the reputation of US diplomacy, and Biden will have to fight hard for gaining it back. He has outlined the principles of his future foreign policies in a piece4 called Why America Must Lead Again. What we can expect from the new administration is a return to value-based multilateralism, and a more engaged approach to international organisations. Biden has already expressed his will to return to the Paris Agreement, and to the WHO. We can also expect more predictable decisions, and an attempt to go back to the pre-Trump level of reliability. Biden announced that as one of his first policies, he will organise a Global Democracy Summit, to rebuild the aforementioned value-based multilateralist approach, and to set-out clear and understandable principles to which other countries can adhere to. However, he will also do everything in his power to Make America Lead Again (pun intended). Without a doubt, he will try to earn the US’s global hegemon place back. He will need strong and powerful allies to do so. And here is the chance for our Union to prove that it is a strong and reliable global player. An actor that delivers on the shared vision, one that can use its power outside its borders, one with a Strategic Autonomy. It needs to be a bastion of common values and predictability in challenging times of new global threats. This is the prerequisite of a mutually beneficial transatlantic partnership. Thus, can the Biden presidency prove to be an opportunity for the EU to rewrite its reputation of doing too little, too late? Is the so-called ‘geopolitical commission’ able to adapt to a new geopolitical reality? What should or should not the European Union do to prove to be a strategically important ally to the United States of America?
The Union can help repairing the damage that has been done to the world order by the Trump administration. Returning to the international organizations and to value-based multilateralism is a shared interest. It is time for a joint approach between the member states, and a time to speak with one voice. The EU must convince the US that it must be counted with. But not with rhetoric, not with empty words and promises. But even though the US is an important, if not the most important strategic ally, the Union must be cautious going down that line as it could also increase its internal discrepancies. The election has caused turmoil in many European countries like Slovenia and Hungary. Not everyone has picked the right horse. Even though some leaders welcomed the result, and congratulated Biden as a sign of their dedication and openness, some others either refused to accept the outcome, or just simply forgot to express their gratulations. This internal division is a warning sign for the transatlantic alliance in the next four years. Therefore, it is interesting to assess how the Strategic Autonomy might change up until, and from the 20th of January when Biden takes his place in Washington.
In order to evaluate such autonomy, it is worth looking at the different aspect of policy areas and European foreign affairs in the light of the aforementioned changes brought by the new administration. The personnel change, and the increased level of trust that it brings will inherently make European foreign policy more engaged with the United States. We will see stronger cooperation on areas like climate change, digitalisation, and defence. But in my point of view, it will not be an equal cooperation. The weakness of a common foreign policy of the Union stemming from internal disputes will make the US a superior side in the equation. And the tilted balance will once again make the European Union inferior to his partner on the other side of the Atlantic. But there is hope for improvement. In some policy areas, the Union can act as the policy maker rather than a policy taker from the US. I will now investigate these areas.
The issue of global warming is a challenge affecting all countries and people. The European Union cannot solve it on its own. However, it being the vanguard of sustainability and the front runner of net zero carbon emissions can give it a strategic advantage compared to the US, and it will be able to use it in negotiating other issues. Re-joining the Paris Agreement will be a lengthy procedure, and it will also test the patience and the support of oil-interested American companies to Biden. On the other hand, the EU can rely on its 2030 and 2050 plans to achieve something remarkable on its own in the field of sustainability. The European Green Deal is another sign of strengthening upon an autonomy that protects and helps coal-heavy industries in the transition, but what is also setting paths and giving certain benefits for renewable energy sources. Thus, even though the EU will not solve climate change on its own, it is right now in a better negotiating position than the US, and it is the US that might have to adhere to some principles.
European rhetoric often mentions climate change and digitalisation as the ‘Steel and Coal’ of the 21st century, the focus points of European integration. And digitalisation can very well be another key aspect of strategic autonomy. The Von der Leyen commission has clearly categorised the concept of a digital EU as one of its main priorities. A Europe Fit for the Digital Age is undeniable the need for all European citizens. It is important to protect our own digital borders, and to set up a functioning collaboration on cyber security among member states. In this regard, the Union must not let the US interfere in its digital autonomy, which is the key for a prosperous digitalised economy.
The fields of climate change and digitalisation are certain areas of opportunity for the EU to strengthen its strategic autonomy, and to not rely too heavily on America. However, the restoration and reimagination of the transatlantic partnership has a very clear priority from the US side, which can easily annulate all previous pursuits for European Strategic Autonomy. The Biden administration has clearly expressed, that it will be strict on defence policy. Something that the EU has for long been unable to establish on its own. There will be no change in the sense that Europe will be overly dependent on the US in the field of defence and security. The Union’s CSDP is a factor that might tilt the balance towards a dependence on and policy-taking from the US rather than relying on European Strategic Autonomy and remaining policy-makers. NATO contributions will be strictly monitored by the US, and we can also expect a heavy push on increasing military expenditures if the European External Action Service does not come up with a credible defence strategy. It is not the time for the CFSP and the CSDP to be caught napping. The European pillar of the defence partnership must be strengthened, and it must be done now. Fulfilling obligations are not enough, and we cannot rely on proposals coming from the other side of the ocean. There are two options for the EU to choose from to preserve its Strategic Autonomy in defence and security. Go along with the EUGS outlined by Mogherini, or instruct Josep Borrell to create a new Strategy, which better reflects the new geopolitical reality. There are only these two options if the Union wants to remain a driver in foreign policy, and not a secondary policy-taker.
Strategic Autonomy must also appear in the Union’s approach to strategically important regions. It needs a genuine global footprint, and an extension of its spheres of influence. It has a responsibility to be more present in the Balkans, the South-American region and in the Middle-East for the sake of its citizens. If we let these regions to be the playground of other global superpowers, the EEAS can admit a hurtful defeat. Historically, the US has been very active in the Balkans, and I doubt this would change with Biden. If the EU does not speed-up the accession talks, and declare clearly its influence on the regions, the US can start over where it left. Even during Trump, tensions in the region were better calmed by the White House than by Brussels (see for example the Serbia – Kosovo summit6). The Enlargement and Neighbourhood policy thus must prioritise this region over any other to prove the actorness of the EU. But prioritising one region should not mean neglecting the other two. A complex Mercosur deal that is fully working can be a very important step for the EU in achieving its Strategic Autonomy. The common market of almost 800 million people would bring great benefits to both regions, and such strategic partnership would also allow Brussels to exercise its power closer to US territory. And last, but not least, what is the EU waiting for moving in hard on the JCPOA? A potential deal with Iran could increase the international reputation of the Union, it would extend its influence in a war-torn region, and could also give the opportunity to launch new negotiations on areas of higher strategic importance.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that this is a race. No one receives a certificate for reaching a deal with Mercosur or with Iran first. But if the Union is dedicated about its Strategic Autonomy, then it must leave the rhetoric, and focus on nailing deals and acting on its own rather than sending fancy twitter messages and eventually becoming a puppet of Joe Biden. Of course, politics is not a zero-sum game. But manoeuvring in times of uncertainty must reflect genuine and credible strategies, not an ad-hoc US policy from the EU. Maybe we will see unprecedented levels of cooperation. Maybe putting ourselves inferior to US foreign policy has bigger benefits than a hard-stand strategic autonomy in the next four years. But in the long run, the EU cannot be left without some sort of autonomy, and some sort of independent strategic thinking.
It would be foolish to think that a change in the seat of the White House can solve much deeper-rooted issues in the transatlantic alliance. As it would also be rather inadequate to think that European Strategic Autonomy is not necessary. It must not be neglected. Future generations and European citizens of today need a stronger Europe in the world, which is better suited for the challenges of the 21st century. A European Union that does not rely on anyone but on itself. A Union that has a genuinely global profile. Which is equipped to be a strong strategic partner to the US but is also equipped to sustain itself and manage without the US. January 20th cannot come soon enough, and just like we did during the election ‘week’, we will interestedly follow the first steps of Biden and Harris, and their approach towards Europe.
Cover photo credit: Shutterstock.com
Balázs Sean Brandt is a Hungarian Politics and International Studies Graduate from the University of Warwick. He specializes in EU foreign policy, transatlantic relations, and geopolitics. He is also the current President of JEF Hungary, where he campaigns for a democratic and federal Europe.