Former United States President Donald Trump was a useful bogeyman for Europe. His successor, Joe Biden, proves to be much trickier – a friend who says all the right things but leaves you on the sidelines when it counts.
From Washington’s surprise withdrawal from Afghanistan to the transatlantic explosion of submarine sales to Australia (AUKUS) and, now, a growing row over the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which offers tax and subsidies to US green businesses, the Biden administration has, time and time again, caught Europe off guard.
With each new affront perceived, the Europeans express shock, frustration and consternation: how could Washington not consult its allies, or at the very least inform them of its plans? Meanwhile, the US response is always some variation of: Terribly sorry, we didn’t even think of that.
The underlying dynamic is one of polite indifference. Despite Washington’s renewed commitment to NATO and the massive outlay of weapons and funds to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, the United States remains steadfastly focused on what most perceive as its biggest challenge. existential: China.
In this equation, Europe is often an afterthought. It’s just that many on this side of the Atlantic have failed to understand the message – or draw any conclusions about what it means for the future of the bloc – preferring instead to play an outrage scenario and remonstrance.
A current example is the flourishing transatlantic argument over Biden’s IRA.
Months in the making, painstakingly crafted on Capitol Hill, the legislation represents Washington’s best bipartisan effort yet to decarbonize its economy and prepare for decoupling from China. The bill provides $369 billion for energy and climate programs, including billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies for electric vehicle production in the United States.
It turns out to be a potential disaster for Europe.
Bruised and confused
Amid an energy crisis that is sinking much of the European Union’s economy into an abyss, French President Emmanuel Macron has led the charge against Biden’s IRA, accusing Washington of maintaining a ‘double standard’ in energy and trade. He called on Europe to respond by rolling out its own subsidy plan, prompting US Trade Representative Katherine Tai at a meeting of EU trade ministers in Prague on October 31.
But rather than try to cajole them with concessions, Tai invited them to board the Chinese train by rolling out their own grants – this is not what Europeans wanted to hear.
According to an EU diplomat who spoke to POLITICO ahead of a meeting of trade ministers on Friday, members of the bloc are still hopeful that Biden will send the IRA back to Congress for resizing, a prospect that US officials say is about as likely as canceling Thanksgiving.
The result is that Europe is now back in familiar territory: bruised, confused and scrambling for an answer while failing to formulate its own coherent strategy to deal with China. And instead of receiving wartime solidarity from Washington, they believe the United States has placed itself in an ideal position to suck investment out of Europe.
The outlines of an EU response to the IRA began to take shape earlier this week, when Paris and Berlin – who only recently spoke again after a falling out – jointly called for a plan to the EU to subsidize domestic industries.
But that plan is likely weeks, if not months, away from becoming a reality. And even if the 27 EU countries manage to strike a deal, their leaders will find it difficult to pump as much money into it as Washington has planned, as most EU countries are still howling in pain over the high price of gas. much of which they now import from liquid natural gas terminals in Texas.
Again, Biden’s America is looking after its interests while the EU is left to moan about 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. Biden’s election, followed by the war in Ukraine and Washington’s massive investment in bolstering NATO’s eastern flank, was to mark America’s decisive return to the European sphere.
But what Europeans are discovering is that the war in Ukraine is only one facet of the larger US strategic duel with China, which will always take precedence over EU interests.
It was true under Trump, and it remains true under his successor. It’s just that the message is delivered in a different style.
In the long run, Biden’s polite indifference could prove more deadly.