Former United States President Donald Trump has been a useful obstacle for Europe. His successor, Joe Biden, turns out to be much more complex, a friend who says all the right things but leaves you out of the woods when the going gets tough.
From Washington’s surprise withdrawal from Afghanistan to the transatlantic scandal over the sale of submarines to Australia (AUKUS) and now the growing controversy over the Inflationary Reduction Act (IRA), which offers tax incentives and subsidies to US green businesses, the Biden administration has repeatedly has caught Europe in stride.
With each new notable insult, Europeans express shock, dismay, and horror: how is it possible that Washington does not consult its allies, or at least inform them of its plans? Meanwhile, the American response is always some variation of: We’re 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 massive spending of arms and funds to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia, the US remains firmly focused on what most see as its primary existential challenge: China.
In this equation, Europe often takes a backseat. But many on this side of the Atlantic fail to understand the message – or to draw conclusions about what it means for the future of the bloc – preferring instead to play out a script of outrage and reproach.
A current example of this is the transatlantic controversy over Biden’s IRA.
Painstakingly crafted on Capitol Hill for months, the legislation represents Washington’s best bipartisan effort yet to decarbonize the economy and prepare to disengage from China. The bill provides $369 billion for energy and climate programs, including billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies for U.S. electric vehicle production.
It just so happens that this is a potential disaster for Europe.
Hurt and confused
Amid an energy crisis that has left much of the European Union’s economy staring into the abyss, French President Emmanuel Macron has led an attack on Biden’s IRA. He accused Washington of maintaining a “double standard” on energy and trade. He called on Europe to reciprocate by introducing its own subsidy plan, prompting a visit by US Trade Representative Catherine Tay to a meeting of EU trade ministers in Prague on 31 October.
But instead of trying to trick them with concessions, Tai invited them to get on the China train by introducing their own subsidies – which the Europeans didn’t want to hear.
According to an EU diplomat who spoke to Politico ahead of the trade ministers’ meeting, members of the bloc still hope Biden will bring the IRA back to Congress for reconsideration, a prospect that US officials say is as likely as Day’s repeal. of thanksgiving.
The result is that Europe once again finds itself in familiar territory: It has failed to formulate its own coherent strategy to combat China. And instead of getting solidarity from Washington in times of war, they think the US has put itself in the perfect position to siphon investment from Europe.
The contours of the EU’s response to the IRA began to take shape earlier this week when Paris and Berlin – who only recently returned to talks after a rift – jointly called for an EU plan to subsidize national industries.
But that plan is likely to come to fruition in weeks, if not months. And even if all 27 EU countries manage to strike a deal, their leaders will be hard-pressed to commit as much money to it as Washington has envisioned, as most EU countries still grapple with the high cost of gas, much of which is currently imported from Texas LNG terminals.
Again, Biden’s America looks out for its own interests while the EU is left to complain about missed signals, hurt feelings, and unfair practices.
The tragedy for Europe is that this is happening at a time when transatlantic relations should be at their highest. Biden’s election, followed by the war in Ukraine and Washington’s huge investment in strengthening NATO’s eastern flank, should have signaled the decisive return of the US to the European sphere.
But Europeans are discovering that the war in Ukraine is only one facet of the larger US strategic showdown with China, which will always take precedence over EU interests.
That was true under Trump and remains true under his successor. It’s just that the message is conveyed in a different style.
In the long run, Biden’s polite indifference may prove more deadly.