‘Stop the bleeding’: Biden reaches out to Europe, but Trump’s damage has been done

Biden is guaranteed to get hearty applause while addressing G-7 leaders and the Munich Security Conference on Friday, but his administration should expect a rockier road ahead.

After conversations with his British, French and German counterparts, aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is meeting Quad counterparts (India, Japan and Australia) on Friday and the EU’s foreign affairs council Monday. His audience is expecting him to play transatlantic bad cop, compared to the ever-optimistic Biden.

On other fronts in the charm offensive, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has wrapped up two days of meetings with NATO colleagues, where he successfully argued to delay NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, while climate envoy John Kerry today joins U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to sweep the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Agreement.

POLITICO spoke to a dozen European and Japanese leaders and senior officials who often lived in fear of former President Donald Trump’s tweets. While they’re positively relaxed about the speeches Biden will deliver Friday, they know Biden’s powers are limited.

European leaders in particular worry that Trumpism remains alive, are skeptical about the results the White House can squeeze from a deeply divided U.S. Congress and aren’t yet sold on meeting the Biden administration’s expectations on China, Russia and trade.

To maximize the chances of a functioning G-7 and rekindled transatlantic relationship, allies are setting the bar low for Friday’s gatherings.

As president and host of Friday’s G-7 gathering, the U.K. is giving Biden a passing grade before he opens his mouth. “Biden doesn’t need to come to this meeting with a suite of creative policy announcements for it to be important or successful,” said a senior British diplomat, adding “it’s enough to stop America’s image bleeding. I doubt anyone will be disappointed.”

A Japanese government spokesperson stressed the need for G-7 countries “to lead the post-COVID international order,” and anticipated full-throated agreement with the shared democratic values Biden is expected to advocate.

Even the Hungarian government — which had an antagonistic relationship with the Obama administration — couldn’t bring itself to sound any alarm bells about the Biden era: Zoltán Kovács, a cabinet member and government spokesperson, said he had no concerns or expectations to convey to Biden.

While boilerplate commitments to multilateralism and democracy are already flowing, they disguise bubbling transatlantic tensions on issues from trade to energy policy to China.

European officials know the tough conversations can’t be avoided for long. Biden “said all the right things” to reassure Europe after “the unpredictable cacophony of Trump,” said Stubb.

“But the realistic picture is that the world is radically different from 2016 when Trump entered the scene,” he added. “This is the message Blinken should deliver” when he meets with the EU’s 27 foreign ministers and the bloc’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell.

Europe isn’t afraid to go its own way

Shocked by Britain’s vote to leave, and wedged between an aggressive Russia, a rising China and a disinterested America under Trump, the EU set a course for “strategic autonomy” in recent years. In that time, China also overtook the U.S. as the EU’s biggest trading partner.

The EU’s repositioning is only now bearing fruit, but that’s not to say it’s superficial either: There’s a determined independent approach to China and Russia relations, a beefed-up industrial policy, tough digital regulations and taxes, and only a tentative commitment to EU joint defense and increased national defense spending.

While the Biden administration sees the EU as an essential pillar of stability in global affairs, it recoils at many of these decisions.

Europeans also worry that in four years, a new Republican administration may junk Biden’s defense and climate commitments, leaving them stranded with long-term investments and no American backup. “Who’s to say we won’t end up right where we were four years from now?” one senior German defense official asked.

National leaders and climate officials welcome U.S. re-entry into the Paris Climate Agreement — Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, called it “an encouraging step” — but said they will celebrate only when Congress passes a strict and well-funded 2030 emissions reduction target.

Trade tensions are simmering

On trade, there is goodwill but that isn’t stopping points of contention spilling out into the open.

Kurz, Austria’s 34-year-old chancellor, told POLITICO that once progress is made against Covid-19 and toward economic recovery, “we should give our trade relations a fresh start by settling ongoing trade disputes and ending punitive measures as soon as possible.”

Kurz is referring to Trump-era tariffs the new administration is yet to unwind, and Biden’s new “Made in America” government procurement policy, which is provoking grumbling in Brussels. Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s trade chief, told reporters Thursday: “We will be assessing to which extent the U.S. complies with its [World Trade Organization] commitments under the global procurement agreement.”

As part of a broader review of trade policy, Dombrovskis promised the EU will be “tougher and more assertive.” That includes a European Commission effort to deliver an “anti-coercion” trade instrument, which would allow it to retaliate against any future U.S. efforts to block EU trade. EU officials are frustrated that European companies such as Airbus and Renault have lost out because of American sanctions against Iran. Brussels is also worried that Washington may outlaw EU companies from shipping goods (like cars) made with U.S. microchips to China, on national security grounds.

“In the years to come, we will witness a certain amount of tension in the field of semiconductors,” said Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner. “We, in Europe, intend to play our full part in this new geostrategic game of chess.”

Back in Washington, administration officials are mostly biting their tongues, avoiding wading into controversial geopolitics like the Nordstream II gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, though House Republicans are urging the imposition of sanctions.

On Trump’s favorite topic of defense funding commitments, Austin, the defense secretary, wrote Wednesday that the U.S. is “ready to consult together, decide together and act together,” with NATO allies, a markedly softer tone than Trump.

European leaders know this harmony won’t last without extra effort from Europe. “Both President Biden and Secretary Blinken know Europe very well. But this also means they know Europe could be a better partner and ally,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told POLITICO.

“We need to put our European house in order by being united on foreign policy and defense,” de Croo added.

Washington’s frustrations are almost certain to burst out into the open around the EU’s push for “strategic autonomy” from the U.S., China and Russia.

While American officials roll their eyes at the EU’s bungling of Russia relations, and see the bloc’s “tech sovereignty” push as blatant protectionism, top of their complaint list is a recent EU-China investment deal that Angela Merkel and EU officials deliberately pushed through in the last weeks of the Trump administration.

The China problem

“China will be the elephant in the room,” said Stubb, but others including Austria’s Kurz are happy to bring the discussion into the spotlight. “Austria is also ready to engage in an open dialogue with the United States on China,” Kurz said.

The problem for the U.S. may be a lack of EU unity on the topic. “If Mr. Biden is stretching out his hand towards Europe, he expects a firm shake, not 27 opinions from as many member states,” said De Croo.

Many smaller European countries feel stuck on China: They distrust how Beijing wields power, but find it both too big to ignore and too big to handle alone. Germany and France — the biggest EU powers — have been vocal about their preference to engage with China rather than forming a Cold War-style bloc against it.

While the EU shifted closer toward U.S. positions on China in 2020, the lack of unity leaves many European countries still allowing Huawei in at least parts of their mobile networks, and prevents the EU from imposing sanctions on China over human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority.

Last week, as China attempted to use a special summit to strengthen relations with Central and Eastern European countries, half of the 12 invited EU national leaders failed to show up to pay homage to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who hosted the event.

When Blinken meets with 27 European foreign ministers Monday via videoconference, he will begin testing the waters on whether the EU can be a strong U.S. ally on China policy.

Aware that pressure from D.C. is on the way, Brussels is considering blocking products made with slave labor before they enter the EU market as part of its new trade strategy, Dombrovskis, the EU’s trade chief, said. Countries including the U.S., Canada and the U.K. have taken steps to avoid importing such products, following increasingly detailed reports on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.

Meanwhile, NATO — which includes 21 EU countries as members — has quietly expanded its remit to China: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said the alliance’s strategy must be based on defending democracy against China’s and Russia’s “authoritarian pushback against rules-based international order.”

NATO’s traditional foe is another source of EU division and potential conflict with a Biden administration. To the annoyance of Baltic countries, Emmanuel Macron has spent his French presidency attempting to succeed where Merkel, Barack Obama and others have failed — by turning Vladimir Putin into a security partner for Europe. There’s no evidence it’s working.

Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Draghi, seems determined to follow in Macron’s footsteps: using his debut speech Wednesday to say Italy would try to increase dialogue with Russia, while expressing concerns over violations of fundamental rights in the country.

Draghi’s remarks come as the EU is considering whether to hit Russia with further sanctions. The topic will be on the table of the bloc’s foreign affairs ministers’ meeting Monday, right after Blinken finishes his discussion with ministers.

We’ll always have Munich

President Biden is returning to familiar ground at the Munich Security Conference, with a familiar message for familiar faces: “Without a stable Atlantic alliance everything, in my view, falls apart.” But what worked in 2009 and 2019 may not be enough in 2021 as democracy finds itself under attack from all quarters, including at home in the United States.

Biden has had to adjust his domestic message and policies to fit with the times, and deliver a flurry of concrete actions to repair the damage he discovered when assuming office. Sooner or later, he’ll need to do the same abroad.

Matthew Karnitschnig and Mark Scott contributed to this report.