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Success guaranteed for the EU-US Summit

The European Union (EU)-United States (US) Summit on 15th June will be a success. It is guaranteed. And not least because holding one is an advance on the recent past: the last EU-US leaders meeting was held in May 2017. Since US President Joe Biden’s election there has been careful choreography to draw a contrast with the difficult EU-US relationship when Donald Trump was president. Biden has already ‘met’ with EU member state leaders by joining a European Council meeting in March. And there has been heavy transatlantic video traffic with virtual exchanges of views between EU27 ministers and Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, with Katherine Tai, US Trade Representative and John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. There is a heavy stress on reinvigorating an EU-US strategic partnership.

The summit’s pre-cooked final communiqué will generate headlines that there is a shared view on the need for a new World Health Organisation (WHO)-led investigation into the origins of the Covid pandemic. And there will be excitement within the Brussels ring road on a reference to US support for EU defence development, not least Biden’s comment at the G7 Summit that the EU was the ‘backbone’ of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Stress will be placed on the shared approach to tackling climate change and the Biden administration’s pathway back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) agreement with Iran. 

An important question beyond the summit will be the duration of this EU-US ‘honeymoon’. Trade disputes have been an enduring feature of EU-US relations. And Trump era (and earlier) EU-US Trade disputes have not been targeted for swift resolution by the Biden administration. Punitive tariffs on EU steel and aluminium imposed under the threat to national security provisions of Section 232 of the US Trade Expansion measures, imposed by Trump, have not been lifted; there is a ceasefire in the World Trade Organisation (WTO)-mandated imposition of trade retaliatory measures from both sides on the long-running Airbus-Boeing subsidies dispute. These sets of issues will not be resolved at the summit.

The summit will down-play differences between EU member states and the US on appropriate policy towards Russia. But profound differences of approach remain between the more emollient treatment of Russia by France and Germany and the more robust approach that looks to be favoured by the current US administration (and many East and Central European EU countries). Biden’s summit meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva in the day following the EU-US meeting means that a premium is currently being put on presenting unity on Russia to allow for an unambiguous messaging on Russia’s human rights abuses, military aggression and other hostile acts. Biden’s decision on 19th May to waive sanctions measures on Nordstream II may only be a short-term measure to neutralise an issue in US-German relations in advance of the US president’s trip to Europe. 

The EU’s collective policy towards Russia has remained insipid. Despite Russia’s occupation of Crimea, involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – including facilitating the shooting down of Flight MH17 –  and recent military posturing on Ukraine’s borders, hostile actions within EU member states, and human rights abuses (including the treatment of Alexei Navalny), Russia remains defined as only a ‘strategic challenge’ for the EU. In contrast the Biden administration signalled a new US approach to Russia on its first day in office with the pledge to ‘hold Russia to account for its reckless and adversarial actions’ and has carried position into fora such as NATO as it debates its new strategic concept. 

An even greater degree of difference in approach is apparent towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The new US administration has already set a trenchant tone on its relation with the PRC and with Biden asserting in February that PRC would face ‘extreme competition’ from the US and a willingness to hold China to account for its human rights abuses. The EU’s decision to push ahead with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with the PRC in January, despite the misgivings expressed by members of the incoming Biden administration, signalled the significantly different policy approach being pursued by Brussels. 

Although the EU defined the PRC as a ‘strategic partner’, ‘systemic rival’ and an ‘economic competitor’ in 2019, there has been much greater attention to the latter. The ratification of the CAI was suspended in May. And only following the PRC’s actions in imposing sanctions on members of the EU’s Political and Security Committee, European civil society organisations and individuals, and several members of the European Parliament, as a response to EU restrictions against four Chinese officials over human rights abuses in the PRC’s Xinjiang region. 

In a commentary for The Washington Post before his departure for Europe, Biden made clear that his objective for his trip was to rally the world’s democracies and his aspiration in his meetings with the EU’s leadership were to ‘to discuss how the United States and Europe can work in close coordination on global challenges.’ He will achieve his objective in having the discussion. But he evolution of EU-US relations may come as a disappointment for the US president as his rhetoric meets the reality of an EU with a different interpretation on the nature of those challenges.

The UK has already set a positive tone for its own relationship with the Biden administration over the last week with the agreement on the New Atlantic Charter, a Joint Statement, and the hosting of a successful G7 meeting. As a spectator of the EU-US Summit, London will have the benefit of contentment in its own early successes with the new American administration as Brussels strives to set its own positive tone for the transatlantic relationship.

Prof. Richard Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.

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