Touching the Elephant: European Views of the Transatlantic Relationship



Jana Puglierin | European Council on Foreign Relations

Whatever the final outcome of the US election, one conclusion is hard to avoid: it will be nearly impossible to unite Europeans as a counterweight to the US.

In a famous Indian parable, a group of blind men come across an elephant for the first time. Seeking to understand the strange creature, they each touch a different part of it – one feels the trunk, another the leg, a third its enormous flank. When they compare notes, they appear to have discovered entirely distinct animals. The moral of the story is clear: we often judge the whole based on our subjective experiences and perspectives.

In this sense, since Donald Trump became president of the United States, EU member states’ approach to the transatlantic relationship has strongly resembled that of a group of blind men. In my conversations with French diplomats, they often portray Trump as the final nail in the coffin of the transatlantic alliance – given that he has questioned American security guarantees for Europe and supposedly driven NATO to “brain death”. Security experts from Poland or the Baltic states, however, emphasise how much more secure they feel since his election, and how credibly the Americans reassure their allies and partners on NATO’s eastern flank. It seems that the United States’ European allies have spent almost four years in parallel realities. Germans, for their part, see the threat that Trump presents to the alliance, but have been trying to manage it.

So far, these differing perceptions have had only a limited impact on European policy. European heads of state and government have repeatedly stressed that Europeans must finally take their fate into their own hands, but little action has followed. They have talked a lot about boosting EU defence capabilities within the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund but then failed to provide the necessary funding to make either matter. In practice, Europe remains as dependent as ever on American capabilities.

There are nascent signs of the EU’s emancipation from the US on secondary sanctions and digital policy, but most Europeans are still stuck in a holding pattern within the transatlantic relationship. They have not yet made a final judgement on whether Trumpism is an anomaly or the beginning of a new era. As a consequence, in the last four years, Europeans’ approach to the transatlantic relationship has been characterised by intensive muddling through and attempts to limit the damage. The US presidential election in November is also, therefore, a watershed moment for US-European relations and the future of the EU as a global actor.

European leaders frequently emphasise that there will be no “return to normal” under a Biden presidency and that Europeans “must do more for themselves” no matter who the next American president is. But they have very different views of how the transatlantic relationship will be affected by who wins the election. To understand the implications of this, the European Council on Foreign Relations asked its associate researchers in all 27 EU member states about their governments’ preferred course of action in both scenarios: to broaden the EU’s strategic bond with the US beyond security; to maintain the strategic bond with the US but focus on security; to maintain good relations with the US but prepare for disengagement; or to position Europe as a third power between the US and China. The results of the survey are based on interviews with experts and policy professionals, as well as a review of primary sources such as government documents and party manifestos.

If Trump loses, an overwhelming majority of EU member states will be interested in broadening their strategic ties with a Biden administration. Clearly, the last four years have not led to permanent alienation, even if it has often looked like that. The desire to cooperate with the US seems to be stronger than the shock of the Trump years. European leaders still believe in America – though European voters increasingly don’t. This finding can be read as a strong European commitment to close transatlantic cooperation on issues such as China, the climate, and digital policy.

However, it could also be seen as an expression of a desire to restore a status quo ante that almost all Europeans claim is gone forever.

It is particularly striking that only France, Germany, and Malta see a need to prepare for long-term disengagement from the US. It seems that, with Joe Biden in office, most Europeans would take America’s continued interest and presence in Europe as a given. Therefore, in the event of a Biden victory, the biggest challenge for Europeans will be to nevertheless strengthen their ambitions for a more proactive and powerful EU foreign and security policy.

Europeans often express a hope that, if Trump won, this would at least make member states more willing to develop the EU into an effective and capable geopolitical power. Accordingly, Trump would become a unifying factor for Europeans. Looking at the results of ECFR’s survey, these hopes seem premature. Some member states would prepare for gradual US disengagement from Europe and, as a consequence, likely push for greater European sovereignty.

But countries on NATO’s eastern flank – as well as Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland – would continue their efforts to expand the EU’s strategic partnership with the US. And others would at least seek to maintain the strategic bond with the US on security matters. These member states see the US presence in Europe as life insurance – and may be relatively reluctant to join team Europe when interests on either side of the Atlantic collide.

However, we do not know how this picture would change if Trump’s second term was an even rougher ride for Europeans than his first term. There is every reason to expect that he would govern with no holds barred, including by turning up the heat on European trade. In the event of a second Trump term, the biggest challenge for Europeans would come from divisions within Europe. This would be especially true if Trump conditioned the US security guarantee on economic or political concessions.

Whatever the final outcome of the November election, one conclusion from ECFR’s findings is hard to avoid: it will be nearly impossible to unite Europeans as a counterweight to the US. Those who aim for greater European sovereignty should be aware that they can only achieve this in cooperation with the Americans.

If Biden is elected, there will be ample room for proactive European initiatives that renew the transatlantic relationship and make Europe a stronger – and, therefore, more attractive – partner for the US. But Europeans should have no illusions. Ultimately, American involvement in Europe will be decided in Washington alone – not in Warsaw, Paris, or Berlin. Like its predecessor, a Biden administration would be keen to end America’s strategic overextension and focus more on the narrow national interest. And the US will prioritise Asia – regardless of who is president. As ECFR’s findings show, one cannot help but worry about Europe’s preparedness to deal with the deep structural forces that will reshape US politics in the decades to come.

Jana Puglierin is the head of the ECFR Berlin Senior Policy Fellow. 

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