Four years have passed since Donald J Trump stood at the West Front of the US Capitol on a cold Friday afternoon to be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States.
“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” the president proclaimed.
For US allies around the world, the message was sobering, an ominous warning of impending change. What followed, however, surpassed what most expected after the former reality TV host's raucous election campaign.
President Trump’s propensity to make bold and shocking declarations rapidly spilt into his foreign policy.
Overnight, decades-old commitments and principles that were once iron-clad became precarious. The abrupt shift in policy was so far-reaching that it ended up tainting one domain which, until then, had remained relatively impregnable: the transatlantic alliance.
In the span of just three months, EU officials had to completely readjust their established work methods and were thrust into uncharted territory to try and salvage a relationship that most had taken for granted.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, diplomatic sources told Euronews there was "a tense atmosphere charged with a confrontational narrative" where US officials treated the EU as its “foe” as Trump once called the bloc.
European diplomats say they were frequently bewildered by the unpredictable behaviour and negative attitude of their US counterparts.
Relations between the EU and the US became more distant, irregular and, at times, paralysed by inaction.
The looming threat of a sudden tweet that could undo the work of months weighed heavily as diplomats were forced to prioritise keeping the transatlantic relations functioning at a basic level.
Trade and defence rapidly became major points of contention. The EU’s trade surplus with the US had risen to €153 billion by 2019, according to Eurostat.
Any sort of deficit that made the US look weak was anathema to Trump. A senior European diplomat told Euronews that trade was “the trigger for a big disaster” in reference to the sanctions and tariffs that the president and his officials were constantly threatening to impose.
The meeting between Trump and then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in July 2018 served to break a temporary truce, but animosity – and new threats – eventually returned.
The administration, however, “was not monolithic,” the diplomat admits. “There were people who did not want to blow up the transatlantic alliance,” they added.
Could it be that the classic textbook diplomacy these EU diplomats had been taught was futile?
Both in Brussels and Washington DC, officials improvised, resorting to out-of-the-box thinking and alternative partners that could help mitigate the damage inflicted by the "American first" dogma.
In Congress, they talked to Democrats and also Republicans who saw the transatlantic alliance as a way to counterbalance the trade war with China.
In certain states, they forged links to boost investment and fight climate change. California, the largest economy in the US, agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation with the European Commission to align their respective carbon markets, for example. And in the private sector, officials engaged with companies interested in trading and adopting EU legislation.
These efforts served to contain what could otherwise have been a total diplomatic collapse. Despite the help from newfound allies and undercover EU advocates, Trump doubled down on his rhetoric, disparaging the EU in public and dealing heavy blows to its foreign policy.
Withdrawals from the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, announced at televised addresses for greater dramatic effect, have not been forgotten in the Old Continent, nor has the public affection that Trump displayed towards some of Europe’s main adversaries.
“Instead of the usual role of having the United States as an ally in supporting democracy and rule of law around the world, the US itself was a problem,” Polish MEP Radosław Sikorski, Chair of the Delegation with the United States, told Euronews.
“Donald Trump was a president who clearly felt more at (ease with) dictators than with democrats. And he damaged many of the institutions of the free world. So it’s been four years of damage limitations.”
'Better to be cautious and pleasantly surprised'
Fatigued by damage control, Europeans are now looking to the next four years with a measured sense of hope.
The relief over the victory of Joe Biden is tangible among diplomats and Members of the European Parliament, who see the Democrat as a traditional Atlanticist who will honour the decades-old alliance and will work to re-energise it.
They all agree that Washington and Brussels will find plenty of common ground between their global agendas, such as climate action, arms control and human rights promotion. “He will not call us a foe,” Sikorski said.
But expectations are being kept low. “Better to be cautious and pleasantly surprised than having high expectations and then be disappointed,” explained a senior diplomat based in Brussels, who predicted Joe Biden will focus first and foremost on domestic issues and then turn his attention to the world stage.
The United States is “fractured”, the official said. “2020 is not 2016: the US is different, the EU is different.”
Diplomats and MEPs believe Joe Biden will engage with a European Union that is stronger, more assertive and more united as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and the absence of US leadership during the Trump era.
But certain thorny issues like the EU’s trade surplus and Big Tech regulation are expected to continue causing disparities between the two allies.
On NATO and Europe’s defence spending, Sikorski predicts a change in tone but not in content. “Trump was right, both in substance and in style, because when Obama and Bush said the same things before politely, it didn’t work,” he said.
European officials are confident that, however complex or contentious the topic, the Biden team will restore the traditional ways of diplomacy to enable dialogue and negotiation, working alongside US allies and within multilateral organisations.
But the diplomats admit there is a caveat for Europe: the EU needs to be perceived as a credible, authoritative interlocutor in order to succeed in this new chapter.
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