European expectations of a Biden Presidency

6 November 2020

After days of excitement, uncertainty and almost 140 million ballots counted, the race to the White House remains too close to call. With the margins narrowing in key battle States by the hour, former Vice-President Joe Biden appears to have a wider path to reaching the coveted 270 electoral college votes in the coming hours than incumbent Donald Trump.

While some US States continue to count ballets under the watchful and excited eyes of the world, US President Donald Trump and his challenger former Vice-President Joe Biden remain neck-and-neck, with Biden flipping Georgia for the first time in 28 years and taking a narrow lead in Pennsylvania at the time of writing.

While President Trump continues to make unfounded claims that the election is being “stolen” by “illegal [mail-in] votes” (note: they’re not), Mr. Biden urged people to “stay calm” and wait until each ballot is counted. A sentiment widely shared in Europe, where MEPs and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged people to “keep a cool head until an independently determined result is available.” 

Following four years of the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine to international relations, hopes are however high among EU leaders for a return to international partnerships, multilateralism and close transatlantic policy coordination under a Biden administration at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Broadly speaking, Joe Biden is a known quantity to Europeans. As Chairman of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and President Barack Obama’s Vice-President, Mr. Biden has a distinguished background in upholding the global multilateral world order and has been instrumental in brokering the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.

From a European perspective, EU leaders will undoubtedly welcome a Biden administration’s pledge to “immediately” re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and commitment for working through multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation or World Health Organisation. EU leaders will certainly also welcome an expected de-escalation of the transatlantic trade tensions built up over the last four years.

While a Biden administration will most likely be less focused on imposing aggressive on tariffs than its predecessor, it is unclear whether if, when or to what extent, Joe Biden would actually repeal those tariffs imposed by Donald Trump. From the EU’s perspective, this of course focuses on the Trump administration’s 2020 tariffs on EU-made steel and aluminium. While a Biden administration would appear much less likely to impose tariffs on European cars and car parts (especially not under a “national security” pretence), his trade strategy is considerably vague on proposed actions against countries other than China.

While there is at least relative certainty that Joe Biden’s position on trade will thaw transatlantic relations, there is considerable doubt that a change in US administration would be able to bridge the deep divergences in their different attitudes to tech policy.

From the Trump administration’s pressure on EU counterparts to block Chinese 5G vendors from their domestic networks, to EU countries’ plans for digital services taxes, the European Court of Justice’s July decision to annul the EU-US Privacy Shield Agreement over inadequate protections from US security oversight and the European Commission’s drive for data sovereignty, the two blocs have drifted further and further apart.

While there may be some convergence on topics such as data sharing and privacy standards, it is highly unlikely that a Biden Presidency would significantly change the US position on its deep opposition to the taxation of its digital giants. While a Biden administration would also likely be less aggressive on pushing EU countries to purge Chinese vendors from their future 5G mobile networks, it will most likely continue this push in the background.

While the Biden campaign has largely refrained from commenting at all on foreign policy, in particularly its attitude to the European Union, a future Biden administration is certain to be a mixed bag for the EU. While EU leaders will undeniably welcome the changing tone from the White House, on a policy level, not much may actually substantially change.