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EU and US kick off diplomatic rapprochement. But will it last?

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The EU-US relations went through an all-time low during the Trump years.
The EU-US relations went through an all-time low during the Trump years.   -   Copyright  Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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The European Union and the United States are setting the stage for their long-awaited diplomatic rapprochement.

Following four tumultuous years ridden with threats, insults and reversals coming from the very top of Donald Trump's administration, Brussels and Washington are readying a common agenda to tackle cross-border challenges such as climate change, digital taxation and the coronavirus pandemic.

John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate, and Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, have already visited Brussels, meeting with high-ranking officials and openly declaring their intentions to strengthen cooperation.

"I know the past few years have strained and tested the transatlantic relationship. But the United States is determined to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trust and leadership," President Joe Biden said in February.

Biden became this week the first American president to address - virtually - the 27 EU leaders during a European summit after accepting an invitation by European Council President Charles Michel. Barack Obama and George Bush had previously participated in specific EU-US summits but never took part in the private conversations of the European Council.

The exceptionally warm reception that Biden, Kerry and Blinken enjoyed in the Belgian capital reveals the extent to which Europe was desperately waiting for the arrival of a new White House tenant.

The EU's international agenda is fully dependent on the functioning of the multilateral system and cannot advance without the active help, or at least tacit consent, from its closest and largest ally on the global stage.

Following Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, which Europeans see as one of their biggest diplomatic achievements ever, the very existence of the agreement was thrown into doubt. As a result, Iran began once again to enrich uranium, reaching 20% purity earlier this year, the highest level since the conclusion of the 2015 deal.

The rapid deterioration in relations with Iran demonstrated how essential and irreplaceable America's role still is on the global stage, a role on which Europe relies to push forward its gown goals.

'The beating heart of global cooperation'

"Today, after four difficult years, Brussels and Washington finally speak the same language again. It's the language of cooperation in international affairs," proclaimed Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, in the opening speech of a three-day event organised by the American Chamber of Commerce to the EU.

"It's time for the Atlantic to become, once again, the beating heart of global cooperation."

Describing herself as a "convinced Atlanticist", President von der Leyen urged her counterparts to agree on a "transatlantic road-map to climate neutrality" and a "new transatlantic rule-book for the digital economy" based on common values.

"If we succeed, we could set the bar for the rest of the world," she predicted.

The rapprochement has already delivered an important breakthrough: in early March, the EU and US agreed to suspend all tariffs linked to the Airbus and Boeing disputes. The two allies have for years accused each other of illegally subsidising their respective aerospace giants.

"It's a very positive sign that further to the conversation between President Biden and President von der Leyen just ten days ago, they agreed for this four-months hold on this. So, that's the first step," opined Susan Danger, CEO of the AmCham to the EU.

"The next step would indeed be taking some action on the aluminium tariffs, preferably suspending them completely, but certainly giving an exemption to the EU."

Further proof of the renewed friendship came when the EU and the US, together with the UK and Canada, synchronised sanctions on a small group of Chinese officials believed to be involved in the human rights sanctions against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

Beijing immediately fired back by sanctioning ten European individuals, five of whom were Members of the European Parliament and three national lawmakers. The direct attack on democratically-elected legislators stunned Brussels and served as a preview into how far China is willing to go if the EU decides to follow Washington's lead.

"When any country, whether it's China or anyone else, [is] not playing by the rules, we have an obligation to stand up. And we're much more effective in doing that when we're doing it together in solidarity," Secretary Blinken told Euronews days after the sanctions were announced.

The geopolitics of autonomy

The United States and the European Union face now enormous expectations to reboot their decades-old partnership and deliver tangible results. But while both sides look forward to brighter days, major disagreements on key issues are set to resurface once the post-Biden inauguration euphoria fades away.

Clashes on defence spending, trade deficits, big tech regulation and relations with China and Russia will continue to be featured prominently - and often uncomfortably - in the transatlantic agenda of the coming years.

In fact, the coordinated move against Beijing came just three months after the EU had signed a landmark investment deal with China. The signature, which took place during the last days of the German presidency of the Council of the EU, was swiftly criticised by the Biden administration, as well as by MEPs and human rights NGOs, who deplored the lack of labour rights provisions in the text. Ratification of the deal hangs by a thread after the Chinese sanctions.

Supporters of the deal, however, argued that it was a necessary, even inevitable, step to help the bloc design and pursue its own path on the global stage, somewhere between Washington and Beijing.

Breaking away from the transatlantic alliance to pursue an alternative avenue would have been close to sacrilege a few years ago. But the commotion and disappointment that Europeans witnessed during the Trump years lifted the lid on a debate about independence and self-sufficiency.

Cue the eruption of the so-called strategic autonomy.

The concept, born within the walls of the Élysée Palace, has yet to be defined by consensus, but largely refers to the need of straightening European sovereignty while decreasing dependence on international partners, mainly the United States. In other words, the EU wants to decouple itself from the volatile electoral cycle of America.

Strategic autonomy was initially presented as an abstract concept, a distant goal to motivate the bloc to be more ambitious. But a concentrated push by French officials elevated the discussion to the highest levels. When Ursula von der Leyen was elected president of the European Commission in late 2019, she declared her Commission would be a geopolitical one.

"We must be ambitious, strategic and assertive in the way that we act in the world," she said in her agenda as then-candidate.

The debate picked up pace during the coronavirus pandemic, when it became painfully clear that the EU, after years of outsourcing, lacked much of the production capacity needed to guarantee the supply of essential medical items, such as face masks. The concept has been contested by several member states, who see it as either too ambiguous or too dangerous for the EU-US alliance.

BART MAAT/AFP
Sanchez and Rutte struck an unexpected alliance with their jointly signed non-paper.BART MAAT/AFP

"Global events, including the current crisis, mark a turning point in the debate on the need for the EU and its member states to have the capacity to take and implement autonomous decisions, preferably in coordination with its global partners, but without being compromised by one-sided dependencies," argued a recent non-paper jointly signed by the prime ministers of Spain and the Netherlands.

The eight-page document mentioned strategic autonomy a whopping 19 times and touched upon areas such as industrial policy, the single market, innovation, taxation, defence and the international role of the euro. It called for "effective decision-making mechanisms" in Brussels by replacing the unanimity rule, which still applies to decisions on foreign affairs, with a qualified majority.

The strange alliance between the two countries, who were at loggerheads during the negotiations of the €750 billion recovery fund, showed that, far from over, the debate is set to continue, regardless of the outcome of the new chapter in the transatlantic alliance.

"The European Union must be a global player, with the capacity to decide and act for itself in order to safeguard its public interests," Pedro Sánchez and Mark Rutte wrote.

"Strategic autonomy must be a means for this, not an end in itself."