Ursula von der Leyen – USA’s relationship with the EU: How have things changed after President Biden’s inauguration?
George Vital Zammit (GVZ): With the Biden Presidency I see a reset button being pressed between the United States and its Allies. With the theatrics and erratic behaviour of Trump out of the equation, I see tensions thawed, relationships rebuilt, and an American leader once again welcomed on the European continent. Trump’s election was the culmination of a ride of discontent that reigned over parts of the world. Europe has its fair share of challenges, but with America back in the fray as a partner, areas like trade and security will be less tough to negotiate.
Lourdes Pullicino (LP): President Biden’s inauguration speech was in its greatest part a conversation with a fractured land, his own, but as expected it was followed closely by the world. Watching on any American network, one could feel the sense that Americans were patently aware that the eyes of the world were on them; ‘the world is watching’ the reporters kept saying. Of course, the world was watching also a few days earlier when the Capitol provided the backdrop to a totally different scene. The new President echoed those words too and offered an assurance of the values underpinning his administration’s approach to foreign policy, which is dramatically different from that of his predecessor. ‘We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again’ and ‘we will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security’. The EU responded warmly to those words and indeed had responded to Biden’s commitment to break from Trump’s foreign policy, even as Trump continued to wreak havoc on Western values. The EU spelt out its commitment to a new EU-US agenda for global change in a 12-page communication on 2 December, underlining the bloc’s and the US’ shared history, values and interests and acknowledging that only by a stronger transatlantic partnership could the present global challenges be met.
What do you think should be the first items on their agendas?
GVZ: The first items on Biden’s agenda can be seen from the list of Executive Orders that were signed immediately upon taking office. Re-engaging with the international community such as by re-joining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement. Another is taking measures to ease the pain and anxiety caused by the pandemic, such as mounting vaccination campaigns but also extending foreclosure moratoriums, student loans, and making wearing a mask obligatory in federal buildings. There will also be an immediate paradigm shift on the USA’s attitude towards immigration, which will include halting the building of the wall, ending travel bans from Muslim countries, stopping the separation of children from their families and preserving the deferment of child arrivals to prevent deportation.
LP: The US administration has gone on record saying that confronting the pandemic and its fallout, climate action and restoring America’s image in the world are high on its agenda. In all of these, the US and EU interests converge. It is likely that greater cooperation on the Covid-19 front, not least to make vaccines available also to poorer countries, as well as action on climate underlined by Biden’s commitment to re-join the Paris Agreement ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year can be the launching pads of closer cooperation which has eluded the two sides in the past four years. A good beginning is important to sustain the relationship in other areas where they pledge to cooperate, but where challenges loom larger – NATO (where EU countries continue to pay less than they committed), trade (where introduced tariffs are not likely to be dismantled easily) and in the design of a more secure regulatory framework for the digital age (where technology giants are mostly American).
What are your views about Biden’s inauguration speech?
GVZ: Inaugural speeches set the tone of a Presidency, spelling out not only the vision for the country, but the way that vision is meant to be accomplished. After Trump’s dysfunctional Presidency that tore further apart the wounds of American society, Biden stressed on unity. His reference to the “winter of peril” is a stark reminder that political actors need to recognize that America’s foremost brand, democracy, is frail and tense, a minefield that was sowed with contrast and division unlike any other period in history since the Civil War. The inaugural speech addressed a broken nation, but offered the antidote for cure; coming together red and blue, rural and urban, conservative and liberal, together.
LP: The reactions to the speech were lukewarm from a rhetorical standpoint, but many highlighted that the speech was an authentic reflection of Biden’s aims and values. I did not find fault with its lack-lustre use of language. I believe it was a speech written from the heart, rather than from the mind, an effort to persuade the millions of Americans watching that this was truly a new beginning which depends not on the success of an administration, but on the commitment of all the country’s citizens. I think it is a speech that resonated with us in Malta also because it sprang from an inner conviction moulded in Catholic values.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU welcomes a friend in the White House, and that they have much to do together. What are your thoughts?
GVZ: The United States was always a friend of Europe. The roots of this friendship are historical. Trump’s tenure was exceptional in that it altered the discourse towards the Europe Union as a political project. Trump courted friends like Farage, Salvini, Wilders and Le Pen, who unequivocally argued for the dissolution of the Union. Notwithstanding that such leaders do also represent social realities that need to be understood and engaged with, they also lead movements to dismantle what the European Union stands for. So it comes as no surprise that Ursula von der Leyen earnestly welcomes Biden for a friendship that will be restored and strengthened.
LP: No doubt, much was broken in EU-US relations in the last four years. The ‘America first’ mantra sat badly with the closer alliance of years past. This does not mean that the ‘black swan’ of Trump’s administration, as one scholar put it, has been the only blot between the two powers. The alliance has been strained in the past – going back to the Suez Crisis, the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The alliance survived and while going back to a pre-Trump relationship may not be easy – Europe’s mistrust in America is likely to persist even after Trump’s departure – the season is one of hope. It is for the two powers to demonstrate through their renewed engagement on a multitude of issues, that the alliance not only survived Trump but will grow stronger. Such a commitment is to the benefit of all citizens of Europe, the US and beyond if we are to build the future world we desperately need.