Former US President Donald Trump was a useful bogeyman to Europe. His successor, Joe Biden, has proven to be even more sophisticated — a friend who says all the right things but leaves you on the hook when it counts.
From Washington’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan to the blowout across the Atlantic over submarine sales to Australia (AUKUS), and now, the growing row over the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers tax incentives and subsidies to green American businesses, the Biden administration has, time and again, caught Europe by surprise. Unawares.
Every time it is seen as a new slight, Europeans express shock, frustration, and dismay: How could Washington fail to consult its allies, or at least inform them of its plans? Meanwhile, the ever-changing American response is: So sorry, we didn’t think of that.
The basic dynamic is one of polite indifference. Despite Washington’s renewed commitment to NATO and the massive expenditure of arms and money to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, the United States remains firmly focused on what it sees as its most major existential challenge: China.
In this equation, Europe is often an afterthought. Many on this side of the Atlantic have failed to understand the message – or to draw conclusions about what it means for the future of the bloc – instead preferring to enact a scenario of outrage and protest.
A current example is the transatlantic debate over Biden’s IRA.
Months in the making, painstakingly fleshed out on Capitol Hill, the legislation represents Washington’s best bipartisan effort yet to decarbonize its economy and prepare for decoupling from China. The bill is worth $369 billion for energy and climate programs, including billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies for electric vehicle production within the United States.
It just so happens that it’s a potential disaster for Europe.
bruised and disoriented
Amid an energy crisis that faces large parts of the EU economy in the abyss, French President Emmanuel Macron has led the charge against Biden’s IRA, accusing Washington of maintaining a “double standard” on energy and trade. He has called for Europe to reciprocate by rolling out its own support plan, prompting US trade representative Catherine Tay to visit a meeting of EU trade ministers in Prague on October 31.
But instead of trying to convince them of privileges, Tai invited them to board the China train by offering their own subsidies – Which is not what the Europeans wanted to hear.
According to an EU diplomat who spoke to Politico before the trade ministers meet on Friday, members of the bloc are still hopeful that Biden will bring the IRA back to Congress for a resizing, a prospect that U.S. officials say is likely to overturn Thanksgiving.
The result is that Europe is now back in familiar territory: exhausted, confused, and striving for a response while failing to articulate its own coherent strategy for dealing with China. Instead of receiving wartime solidarity from Washington, they feel the United States has ideally positioned itself to absorb investment from Europe.
The outlines of the EU’s response to the IRA began to take shape earlier this week, when Paris and Berlin – who recently got back to talking after a disagreement – called for an EU plan to support domestic industries.
But that plan is likely weeks, even months, away from becoming a reality. And even if all 27 EU countries can strike a deal, it will be difficult for their leaders to inject nearly as much money as Washington has earmarked for them, since most EU countries are still reeling from high gas prices — much of which they now import from gas stations. Texas Liquid Natural.
Once again, in Biden, America cares about its own interests while the European Union groans at missed signals, hurt feelings, and unfair practices.
The tragedy for Europe is that this is happening at a time when transatlantic relations are supposed to be at an all-time high. The election of Biden, followed by the war in Ukraine and Washington’s massive investment in supporting NATO’s eastern flank, was supposed to signal a decisive US return to the European sphere.
But what the Europeans are discovering is that the Ukraine war is only one aspect of the larger strategic duel between the United States and China, which will always take precedence over the interests of the European Union.
This was true under Trump, and it remains true under his successor. It’s just that the message is delivered in a different way.
In the long run, Biden’s polite indifference may prove deadlier.