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Up for election in 2024? The transatlantic alliance.
By a quirk of timing, 2024 will see not only America elect a president, but Europe choose its next slate of top EU officials.
And with Joe Biden officially launching his re-election campaign last week, the U.S. president is now one step closer to facing voters within months of his EU counterpart, Ursula von der Leyen, who is still deciding whether to seek her own second term atop the European Commission.
In many ways, the personal chemistry between the two is on the ballot. The two leaders have forged strong ties while in office together despite persistent friction between the U.S. and Europe over everything from tariffs to subsidies to security deals.
That means that whether the duo stays or goes will inevitably have profound consequences for the transatlantic alliance.
A defeated Biden could mean a return of Donald Trump, who as president launched a trade war with Europe, openly questioned multilateralism and cast the European Union as a foe. And a departing von der Leyen would deprive a re-elected Biden of a resolute EU ally on touchy subjects like sanctioning Russia and keeping China at bay.
If they both leave, the transatlantic relationship will enter unchartered territory.
That’s a scenario their supporters aren’t keen to face.
“We are fortunate to have European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and President Biden where they are today,” Representative Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told POLITICO. “It takes leadership and moral clarity to lead coalitions of allies and partners in addressing our shared global challenges.”
Good times (despite the crinkles)
The arrival of Biden, a committed transatlanticist, to the White House in 2021 was greeted with barely-contained relief in Brussels.
The EU was still reeling from the roller-coaster Trump years and it seemed inevitable that things could only get better with the pro-EU Biden in the White House. Still, the relationship between Brussels and Washington has returned to an even keel much quicker than many expected.
“Relations between the EU and the United States are in a much better place than they were during the Trump administration,” said Anthony Gardner, who served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union between 2014 and 2017. “Part of that is down to the strong relationship between Biden and von der Leyen, which has allowed the sides to manage through any challenges in the relationship.”
He cited the recent coordination on sanctions against Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine as evidence of the tight relationship. It’s a sea change from 2014, Gardner said, recalling his experience of working with the EU to jointly sanction Moscow following its annexation of Crimea.
“The distinction between how far and how fast we moved on sanctions is remarkable,” he said. “It’s a highly complex process. Both sides have gone way beyond anything that was agreed back in 2014.”
Part of this is due to a meeting of minds between von der Leyen, the 64-year-old former German defense minister, and Biden the 46th U.S. president, who was intimately acquainted with Ukraine policy following his stint as vice president during the Obama administration.
As Washington was painting dire warnings about Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine in late 2021, few people in Europe were listening. Von der Leyen was. At a critical Oval Office meeting in November of that year, Biden, who had just come from a briefing by national security and intelligence officials about the buildup of Russian battalions near the Ukraine border, sounded the alarm to von der Leyen.
“The president was very concerned,” one European official recalled last October, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This was a time when no one in Europe was paying any attention, even the intelligence services.”
Following the meeting, von der Leyen’s team worked stealthily with the U.S. administration on a package of sanctions that could be adopted if Moscow decided to send troops across the border. When Russia invaded, the Commission was ready to go.
Not all rosy
While the war in Ukraine has pushed Europe and the U.S. closer together, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
An early sign of troubles ahead was America’s decision to opt for a defense pact with Australia and the U.K., known as AUKUS. The decision cost France a multi-billion euro submarine contract and offered a chilling reminder to Europe of where it stood in the global pecking order.
Similarly, a plan to remove Trump-era steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU still remains unresolved more than two years into the Biden presidency. Though the U.S. president agreed to a temporary cessation of hostilities in 2021, both sides must strike a new deal this year or risk the return of tariffs.
But the biggest strain on relations was Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. The president’s landmark piece of climate legislation caused fury in Europe as hefty U.S. subsidies lured European companies away.
Since then, von der Leyen has been busy trying to smooth the waters. A White House visit last month didn’t lead to a major breakthrough, but she argued it has laid the groundwork for tweaks that will allow European car-makers to benefit from green energy tax benefits. The two partners also agreed to work together on bolstering raw material cooperation.
Von der Leyen’s perceived closeness to Biden has ruffled some feathers. European Council President Charles Michel has questioned whether Europe should be hitching its wagon too firmly to the United States, particularly when it comes to China policy. It’s a view echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned against Europe becoming a “follower” of the U.S. in an interview with POLITICO and the French newspaper Les Echos.
As von der Leyen mulls whether to seek a second five-year term atop the Commission, speculation is rife in Brussels about her future.
The former defense minister has been linked to the upcoming vacancy at the helm of NATO, though the position is opening up well before her mandate as Commission chief ends.
The U.S., while having the ultimate say on who gets the NATO job, may prefer to have someone with the White House’s ear atop the EU.
For Gardner, the former U.S. ambassador, it is von der Leyen’s position on China that is one of the closest indications of the strength of the relationship between the Biden administration and the European Commission. The EU executive has inched toward the harsher U.S. line on Beijing, even as some of Europe’s most powerful countries warn that the EU must stay economically engaged with China.
“Back then, the Commission and EU institutions were in a very different place on China, and the China challenge,” Gardner said. “Fast forward today — the speeches, the policy announcements indicate not quite an alignment with the United States, but the EU has moved much closer to the U.S. view.”
As the United States sounds the warning bell about Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions, particularly when it comes to Taiwan, Biden may discover he needs that supportive voice on China that von der Leyen offers. Given the resistance by some EU figures — not least Macron — to America’s world-view in Asia, Biden may need all the support he can get.