EU swaps Trump’s well-done steak (with ketchup) for Biden’s prime ribeye
A love-fest with new president in Brussels, and support as he confronts Russia.
For the EU, Joe Biden’s first overseas trip as U.S. president was like having big brother come home from university — just in time to confront the neighborhood bully.
After four days at busy leaders’ summits of the G7 and NATO, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel finally got a chance to sit down with Biden on Tuesday for their own quiet conversation about EU-U.S. relations, before sending him off to Geneva where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Their collective message: We love you, Joe. Now go get him.
The meeting on Tuesday was nothing short of a lovefest, with perhaps the only disagreement being who was happiest, Biden or the Europeans, that Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States.
“Well, Mr. President, dear Joe, we are so pleased to welcome you in Brussels,” von der Leyen said, as she joined Michel to greet Biden on the red carpet of the Council’s Europa building. “You are back in Brussels and America is back on the global scene. It’s great news. It’s great news for our alliance. It’s also great news for the world. And we are really delighted to work with you to tackle together some global challenges.”
Biden quickly picked up the theme.
“America is back,” he said. “We never fully left, but we are reasserting the fact that it’s overwhelmingly in the interest of the United States of America to have a great relationship with NATO and with the EU.” Then, pointedly, he added: “I have a very different view than my predecessor.”
You don’t say.
Gone is the swaggering blowhard who called the EU a geopolitical foe that was created to harm the U.S., the guy who berated European NATO allies as deadbeats and accused Germany of selling out the West for cheap Russian gas.
Gone is the Sharpie-wielding, map-altering “stable genius” who couldn’t tell the Baltics from the Balkans, who wondered if Finland was part of Russia, and congratulated Giuseppe Conte, who has never run for political office, on his “tremendous victory” in Italian elections.
And gone, gone, gone is the charmer who called Angela Merkel and Theresa May “losers” and — oh, the uncivilized inhumanity — ate his steaks well-done, slathered in ketchup.
There, in his place, walking the red carpet past the European flags in the so-called Space Egg that is the Council’s HQ, was the avowed Atlanticist who played foreign policy wise man to Barack Obama, the endearing grandad (who makes the occasional gaffe). He called American’s commitment to collective defense “rock-solid” and “a sacred obligation.”
As a down payment on rejuvenated relations, Biden agreed to a truce in the nastiest, longest-running cross-Atlantic trade feud — the battle over state subsidies to the airplane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing. The truce may be short-lived and less than meets the eye, but why fight over airplanes when you can use them to visit friends and take summer holidays?
A long delay in the publishing of the joint EU-U.S. statement after the meeting hinted at difficulties and disagreements being swept under some diplomat’s desk. But there was no public fretting, only reassurances that everything was fine, just fine.
The EU side did acknowledge that it was time for Biden and the U.S. to get more serious about carbon pricing, as part of the global response to climate change. But they didn’t dwell on it.
That Biden did not even bother to stick around for the closing news conference was also quickly forgiven. He is a busy man. Plus, he’s off to Geneva to try to reset relations with Russia on behalf of the entire Western world: Bonne chance, notre ami, bonne chance.
Standing with Michel at the news conference, von der Leyen gushed so much that one might have blushed.
On trade, she said it was good Biden had dropped Trump’s pretense for tariffs. “It was good to hear that the U.S. clearly agrees with us that the European Union is not a national security threat. So we are happy about that.”
But she was even happier about Biden’s views on the transatlantic relationship.
“It was impressive to see and to listen to President Biden how clearly he, first of all, was acknowledging that yes, we know that the last four years were difficult and the world has changed, but Europe has also changed,” von der Leyen said. “But there is a second important point: we are longstanding friends and allies and we share many, many same world views and we share the same values.”
“And the third point, which was for me impressive — I don’t know how it was for you,” she said, turning to Michel. “The way he explained to the two of us how much he cares about Europe because as he said, ‘We need, we Americans need Europe’ and the same goes for us, we Europeans need our American friends, because these are the democracies who uphold the values and who stand up for the fundamental rights and the values we really cherish and respect. And this atmosphere shows there is the knowledge, that we are different, of course, but we are one if you look at fighting for democracy.”
Von der Leyen needn’t have worried, Michel confirmed that it was good for him too.
“We have been able to look each other in the eye and also feel there is sincerity in a genuinely common approach,” he said. “More commitment for democracy. More commitment for stability and security.”
A first test of how well they will do on the stability and security front will be Biden’s high-stakes meeting in Geneva, where the Europeans are counting on him to try to at least set the stage for a breakthrough with Putin.
Von der Leyen noted that relations with Russia could hardly be worse. “We must say that the EU-Russia relationship is currently more on a negative spiral,” she said. “We would like to turn that, if I may say so, into a more predictable relationship.”
But the Europeans must also consider how dismal ties are between Moscow and Washington and how big a hole Biden and Putin need to climb out of after years of ill-will.
Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said that the Biden-Putin confrontation might be regarded as successful if they could agree on such minor steps as restoring normal diplomatic relations, with ambassadors back in each other’s capitals.
And Charap said that the White House was likely smart to avoid a joint news conference, where virtually any question would simply highlight bitter disagreements.
“If the purpose is to create a degree of stability and predictability, having public confrontation is not going to further that objective,” Charap said. As for what the meeting might yield, he added: “There hasn’t been enough time at the working level to achieve some big breakthrough. It’s a summit about starting processes not about finishing them.”
For Europe, any process that doesn’t involve the U.S. president saying he trusts Russia’s leader more than the U.S. intelligence services — as Trump did at his meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018 — might be sufficient.
Von der Leyen said Europe hoped to join forces with Biden so there is “clear pushback on breaches of international law; clear pushback on breaches of human rights” and “secondly, to constrain Russia’s attempts to undermine us.”
“But,” she said, “the EU-Russia relationship is on a negative spiral and this is what we conveyed clearly to President Biden.”