European Reflections on the US Elections

It has been just over a week since the US Election, the results of which have sparked a wave of reaction from global leaders, despite the current US president’s refusal to accept his election loss. 

In response to this, the European Institute has collated a series of reflections from our colleagues across UCL, offering perspectives in history, law, politics, European thought and culture, and beyond.

Also on this topic are reflective pieces by Tim Beasley-Murray, Associate Professor in European Thought and Culture, and Michal Murawski, Lecturer in Critical Area Studies.

Jeff Bowersox
Associate Professor of German History

Among the many welcome changes to be expected from the incoming Biden-Harris administration is that it will set a new tone on matters of race and racism both in the US and more widely. This presents a twofold challenge for European antiracist activists.
Donald Trump’s inflammatory amplification of the tropes of white nationalism has emboldened the radical right and its fellow travellers, but it has also provided a focus for outrage and organizing. Black Lives Matter in the United States has drawn extraordinary energy from this, and European activists have also been able to use the American example to draw attention to the persistent operations of racism around the continent.
At the same time, it is a longstanding challenge to keep the focus on matters in Europe, rather than letting commentators and policymakers indulge in self-flattering critiques of developments in the US. Paradoxically, Donald Trump’s departure will make it easier for activists to focus attention on problems closer to home, but an apparent return to “normalcy” could also reduce the sense of urgency and make it harder for activists to keep pressure on European governments.

Piet Eeckhout
Professor of EU Law, European Institute Academic Director

There are quite a few trade issues between the US and the EU, currently – in fact there always have been, and always will be. Traditionally, the Democrats have been more hostile to trade liberalization than the Republicans, but that is something which Trump completely turned on its head. It’s a reflection of how populist his administration has been.  Conversely, President-Elect Biden’s ambition to restore America’s leadership role in world politics, including in multilateral organisations, bodes well for a more productive relationship with the EU. 
To me the most important issue is rescuing the WTO. It is in both the EU’s and the US’ interest to do so, as the WTO is the only leverage they have in the competitive race with China. This rescue involves more than appointing a new Director-General, and re-staffing the Appellate Body. The WTO needs to be the forum for new agreements, which can only be done by moving away from the consensus-based, all-members system of negotiating. Plurilateralism is what we need (pardon my French), and the EU should help the US move along that path.

Thomas Gift
Associate Professor of Political Science

In the wake of Brexit, and with the UK casting its eyes across the Atlantic in search of a trade deal, “how special will the special relationship be?” might be most pressing question for all of Europe following Joe Biden’s win. There’s little doubt that the new US president will endeavor to restore frayed bonds with many of America’s Western European allies, and as part of that effort, simultaneously try to maintain goodwill with the UK.
Unclear, however, is whether Biden will seek especially to prioritize the UK or whether he will simply view it as one of several important partner countries, along with Germany, France, and other powers. How Biden prioritizes the UK in its long “to-do” list aimed at improving US-European relations will likely determine whether the two countries can broker a mega-trade deal or if round after round of negotiation leads to more promises than action.

Kirsty Hughes
Member of the European Institute Advisory Board

Europe will not be at the top of President Biden’s priority list. Nonetheless, his victory means not only that there will be a change in tone but some important change in substance.
Few expect that the welcome arrival of President Biden will turn US-European relations back to the past. The US pivot to Asia is not going to disappear. Nor is the Macron-led debate about greater strategic autonomy for the EU going to end. And overall, the more belligerent, and unstable, ‘great power’ world that has emerged in recent years is not going to simply disappear. China’s rise as an authoritarian power will continue. And the old idea of a US-led ‘West’ has gone too. Nonetheless, there is a chance here for the dial to turn back towards strengthening multilateral institutions, democracy and human rights.
The UK government will have to decide whether to stick to its isolationist, Trumpian/populist path or to attempt to rebuild relations with the EU and with the new administration despite the UK’s loss of influence and reputation due to Brexit. Opportunities here do exist, including on the core challenge of climate change, as well as in NATO.

Brian Klaas
Associate Professor in Global Politics

Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election will provide a much-needed reset between Europe and the United States. During Donald Trump’s presidency, most European allies of the United States were dismayed by the direction of US foreign policy – particularly on issues of shared interest and shared values, like climate change, support for NATO, and democracy promotion.
European diplomats will find a much more favourable worldview in the Biden White House. For his part, Biden will be eager to show that he still cares about Europe – and I expect him to launch some form of “America is back” tour once the pandemic allows for his travel.
However, there are still serious challenges. The Trump presidency made clear to Europe that the United States may not always be a reliable ally. That realization has sparked calls for more security self-sufficiency across the European Union. Furthermore, the United States began a “pivot toward Asia” under Barack Obama’s presidency, and that is likely to continue as global economic power continues to swing toward Asia.
In short, while transatlantic relations will become significantly more normal than they have been, Europe will still have to grapple with a “new normal” that doesn’t necessarily put them at the forefront of American geopolitical strategy.

Ronan McCrea
Professor of Constitutional and European Law

With the EU’s judicial and political institutions struggling to find legal means with which to counter the slide away from liberal democratic values in some Member States, the electoral defeat of Donald Trump offers some hope that it can be possible to combat such tendencies through electoral means may not be hopeless. The change of power in Washington brings also brings a pro-EU figure to power and what is more a figure who is likely to be unsympathetic to British attempts to conclude a trade deal if the UK government does not pull back from its threats to tear up the commitments it entered into in relation to Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. This may increase pressure on the British government to avoid a no deal outcome in the current talks.

Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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