Written by Tyana Barry and Edited by Gelina Ferrari
Transatlantic tensions have been in the spotlight for several years. With a rapid succession of crises and difficulties in presenting a united front, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have been experiencing a shift in their relationship. The first consequential event was marked in 2016 when Republican nominee Donald Trump succeeded Democrat-leaning President Barack Obama (Whineray, 2020). Turbulence between the EU and the US has dated back to the early 2000s with the Bush presidency and its notable intervention in Iraq in 2003. However, Trump has effectively undermined European Integration and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) (Whineray, 2020; Blockmans, 2021). Recently, the Covid-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine, mutual tensions with China as well as soaring trade and investment relations have put the transatlantic alliance to the test. With increasing difficulties, the EU and the US are facing international pressure to act swiftly as well as domestic calls to prioritise their own citizens. In light of the turmoil, the EU and the US have struggled to maintain leadership and present an allied front (Javadi, 2022). This research article will hence explore the shifting EU and US relations from the one they built over the past sixty years. Moreover, it will explore the consequences of the recent crisis of Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and Chinese trade tensions and further highlight the future possibilities for the transatlantic alliance.
- EU – US Relations: Shift in relations
The relationship between the United States and the European Union has never been linear. In the past sixty years, the EU and the US aligned their shared values and promoted a multilateral order based on democratic values and freedom. The two powers faced wars alongside one another, a common ideological enemy – formerly known as the USSR and now Russia – and are currently dealing with a strong economic force China (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021; Moller & Rynning, 2021). In the 1990s, during the EU’s disastrous response in the Balkans, military spending was cut, marking a strong turn in their bilateral relations and resulting in a dispute on defence budgets (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021). Whilst presenting a united front publicly, the alliance also faced disagreements about interventions, namely in Iraq during the Bush administration in 2003. The EU had repeatedly advised against it, yet the US ignored them. Even years later, during the Obama presidency, the relationship developed cracks, primarily due to the ‘pivot to Asia’ or the rise of China (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021). The US signalled to the EU to further seek independence without abandoning the latter. However, during the Crimean Crisis in 2014, the Obama Administration renewed NATO’s importance by reaffirming solidarity with its European allies with the Wales Summit declaration and urging increasing spending to avoid Russian threats growing in the European Neighborhood (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021; Moller & Rynning, 2021). While ideological differences created tensions at times, trust was fundamental, especially with NATO, and seemed to be the foundation for the transatlantic alliance. Nevertheless, the Trump administration radically shifted the dynamic (Moller & Rynning, 2021).
As highlighted, troubling trends and periodic crises have often lingered around the relationship between the EU and the US. Even so, the Trump administration effectively undermined transatlantic relations and forged a crisis of trust that had never been more apparent (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021, p. 714). President Trump has and continues to repeatedly question the existence of the transatlantic alliance, its values and beliefs, and the alliance’s common undertakings. While previous cracks were concealed through a strong front, Trump has made public anti-alliance statements and condemned the state of affairs during NATO summits, revealing the cracks once more (Moller & Rynning, 2021). Furthermore, as opposed to his predecessors, Trump made a hard case against EU integration and enlargement and pushed for Brexit (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021; Jackson, 2021). An era of increasing isolationism and zero-sum international trade set in motion by Trump signalled a break in previous relations. Trade disagreements caused tremendous tensions in the alliance, with the US forcing higher tariffs on specific products, including steel and aluminium, and demonstrating its stance, heading toward American protectionism (Nielsen & Dimitrova, 2021). The EU, as a result, retaliated with their own tariff increases on US products, further straining the already fragile relationship. Free trade was at odds and so was multilateralism and democratic entente (Jackson, 2021). Trump’s character and behaviour have caused significant outrage from European leaders. The “America First” policy has caused irreparable damage to the transatlantic alliance that even the Biden administration struggles to fix today (2021) . The Trump administration broke away from previous administrations, namely in damaging trade relations, furthering isolationism, and casting its allies in a negative light. As a result, the EU and the US navigated crises today with difficulties, with a lack of cooperation.
- Recent Crises: What does the future look like for the Transatlantic Alliance?
In recent years, the international landscape has significantly shifted. This led to new challenges that tested the transatlantic partnership. Growing political polarity, a pandemic, and rising powers mirror some of the difficulties the EU and the US had to face. This section thus aims to cover some of the most trying challenges this partnership has had to overcome.
Covid-19 has affected every country on the globe. Transatlantic cooperation was deeply harmed by the Covid-19 virus crisis, distrust among populations has been on the rise, and the lack of domestic cooperation in the respective countries of the EU and the US has accelerated transatlantic differences (Arvanitopoulos, 2020). Rapidly, containment and mitigation protocols, as well as vaccine policies, were met with much criticism and harsh protesting in the EU and the US. Midst-pandemic, China engaged in public relations campaigns, promising to deliver a vaccine and sending staff and supplies all over countries in the EU and Africa (Arvanitopoulos, 2020). Trump withdrew the United States from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and refused to cooperate on a vaccine with allies and countries in the WHO (Policy Department for External Relations, 2020). Consequently, US policies have effectively caused distrust among the EU leaders. Blame for the Covid-19 outbreak was then quickly assigned to uncooperative citizens and China itself (Arvanitopoulos, 2020). This prompted a swift race between the United States, Russia, China, and the EU to develop a vaccine for their own citizens first; a tremendous lack of solidarity was hence exposed to the world and plastered across media headlines. With a high death toll, social fatigue with repeated lockdowns, and economic crackdown looming, Covid-19 shed light on the turmoil in transatlantic relations and its escalating tensions. The nationalisation and isolationism of each country’s policy during the Covid-19 outbreak highlighted the failure to navigate the crisis effectively (Arvanitopoulos, 2020, p. 170). Cooperation efforts were non-existent and the transatlantic alliance suffered as a result, with increasing isolationism looming during the sanitary crisis (Policy Department for External Relations, 2020).
2.2 The War in Ukraine and NATO
While the Biden administration has renewed favourable bilateral ties with the EU, the relationship between the EU and the US is experiencing difficulties in returning to its Pre-Trump era (Masters, 2023). The war in Ukraine, however, has shifted this mutual distrust significantly, propelling the need for a strong Transatlantic alliance at the forefront of the international scene. While the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance became dormant during the Trump administration, in 2022, it experienced a recent restoration (Masters, 2022). In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU launched unprecedented sanctions on Russia, ended the Nord Stream, suspended trade and economic relations, and isolated Russia in the diplomatic scene. Yet, in being able to do so, the EU has heavily relied on the United States and NATO (Bergmann & Besch, 2023). Upholding NATO and strengthening the alliance further in the face of threats is more necessary than ever (Javadi, 2022; Casarini, 2022). Whilst the organisation was revived in the wake of the war, it immediately experienced difficulties in rallying all members to its cause; in particular, Turkey’s resistance to agree in favour of Finland and Sweden joining NATO ranks (Masters, 2023). NATO members, as a collective, have suffered from the policies and sanctions imposed on Russia. Economically, many states have struggled to cope with gas diversification and independence. Some heavily gas-dependent countries were initially reluctant to support Ukraine, such as Hungary, which was also friendly to Putin’s cause, but ended up joining EU forces. However, this unprecedented display of solidarity with the US is still fragile; hence nurturing a united front and dialogue to maintain supplies and financial help to Ukraine is vital (Nielsen, 2022, pp-59-60). With tension and apprehension to continue funding Ukraine present in both EU states and the US, NATO is at risk of becoming ineffective again. If NATO falters, China and Russia will pose a problem for the Western world, including the end of the Post-Cold War European security order based on the Paris Charter and the Helsinki Final Act (Nielsen, 2022, p. 61). The transatlantic partnership and NATO should uphold the security it promised its members and evaluate its long-term viability. NATO’s revitalised state has the potential to strengthen the European neighbourhood and retain the status quo. As an upholder of security, it must strongly believe in its values and ideals to defend it (Nielsen, 2022, pp. 61-62).
2.3 Trade Relations with China
The need for renewing the EU-US dialogue in China is evident. The EU has been much more careful with its economic ties than the US has required to maintain security relations (Whineray, 2020; Poletti et al., 2023). While the EU has largely followed the US actions in hardening relations and introducing investment screenings to limit Chinese access to European markets, it seems the EU falls victim to each Sino-American quarrel (Balfour, 2022; Poletti et al., 2023). The EU-US dialogue on China, promised by Josep Borell after Biden’s victory at the US national elections, was short-lived (Casarini, 2022, pp. 100-101). A formal economic understanding was found between China and the EU, known as The ‘China – EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment’ (CAI), which was signed in December 2020. In 2022, Germany agreed to infrastructure investments which was met with much criticism from the US (Balfour, 2022; Poletti et al., 2023). Unlike its European counterparts, the US under the Biden administration has renewed its aggressive policy and engaged in a tough containment strategy by launching bills, publicly accusing China of spying and cyber escalation (Casarini, 2022; Chivvis, 2023). European countries are a large market for China which places those countries in a difficult position to counter Chinese influence. The EU-US dialogue ought to take precedence and should be developed further. Aggressive tactics have been unsuccessful in the past, and the European reluctance only enhances their vulnerable position facing China forward (Casarini, 2022; Chivvis, 2023; Dempsey, 2023). A more balanced relationship between the EU and the US is necessary to address their mutual disagreements with the Chinese state (Poletti et al., 2023, p.34).
Transatlantic relations have been at odds for years and the recent turbulence has only tested their dynamic. Joe Biden’s victory that originally renewed hope faded quickly with Covid-19 looming, decreased trade, and war in Europe. While the European Union and the United States have maintained a mutually beneficial trade relationship that has ensured the partnership’s longevity, the presidency of Donald Trump presented tumultuous changes. With growing American isolationism, the EU’s blurred pursuit of leadership, and reluctance to punish China, as well as the war in its neighbourhood, a robust transatlantic alliance is necessary and fundamental for both parties. Both the EU and the US ought to work on fostering their security and economic independence without falling into the trap of isolationism. Moreover, this article suggests the EU and the US should shift their current mitigation strategy with China considering aggressive tactics remain unsuccessful. An open dialogue is clearly necessary to maintain bilateral relations.
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