EU Leaders React Positively to Biden’s Speech But Deep Differences Remain

By James Carstensen | February 22, 2021 | 6:57pm EST
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Munich Security Conference in 2019.  This year President Biden addressed the MSC virtually. (Photo by Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Munich Security Conference in 2019. This year President Biden addressed the MSC virtually. (Photo by Christof Stache/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – European Union leaders offered praise for President Biden’s weekend speech at a Munich Security Conference event, hailing a “return” to transatlantic cooperation, but key policy differences between the U.S. and Europe remain unaddressed.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined – determined to reengage with Europe,” Biden said in a virtual address to the “special edition” MSC, an event held in place of the usual annual conference, which has been postponed until later this year.

E.U. leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, praised Biden’s pledge to work with Europe and a renewed commitment to NATO, after tensions during the Trump presidency.

Merkel and Macron both reiterated their commitment to increasing defense spending to meet NATO’s target of two percent of national GDP – a priority issue for President Trump – while Merkel also welcomed Biden’s reversal of Trump’s decision to transfer U.S. troops from Germany to elsewhere in Europe.

Although Biden’s approach was for the most part warmly welcomed, differences remain.

Macron repeated his past calls for European “strategic autonomy” that does not require or rely on U.S. involvement.

“I listened to President Biden and appreciated the list of common challenges in Africa, in the Middle East,” he said after Biden’s speech. “But we [the E.U.] have an agenda that is unique.”

(The comments aligned with Macron’s remarks to the Atlantic Council two weeks ago: “Middle East, Africa are our neighbors. It is not the U.S.’s neighborhood.”)

“We need more of Europe to deal with our neighborhood,” Macron said at the MSC event. “I think it is time for us to take much more of the burden for our own protection.”

He insisted this was not a threat to NATO, but would on the contrary make the alliance “even stronger than before.”

A point of tension with Germany is Berlin’s continued push ahead with the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Russia – another project frequently criticized by Trump.

“The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance,” Biden said in his speech. “[President Vladimir] Putin seeks to weaken European – the European project and our NATO alliance.”

On Biden’s comments about Russia, Merkel said, “It is very important that we develop a common transatlantic Russia agenda, which on the one hand makes cooperative offers, but on the other hand clearly identifies differences.”  She did not name Nord Stream 2 directly.

Biden is firmly opposed to the pipeline and, along with the E.U. itself, has called for it to be halted over Russia’s jailing of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny and crackdown on anti-Putin protestors. Germany insists the pipeline should not be linked to the Navalny issue.

Opposition in the U.S. Congress is bipartisan. Before Biden’s speech, U.S. Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the completion of the project would not be a “constructive” way forward in the European partnership.

Peter Beyer, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Bundestag’s transatlantic coordinator, welcomed Biden’s address, but also brought up differences over trade policy.

“After the uncertainty of the Trump years, he has shown the West a powerful perspective for the coming decades,” he told local news portal T-Online. But he called for a return to negotiations on an E.U.-U.S. free trade agreement.

“The time of punitive tariffs must come to an end,” he said. “Only together as transatlantic partners can we master the challenges of the 21st century.”

But European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that a return to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was unlikely.

“I don’t think that TTIP will be revived because we are not there where the U.S. left us four years ago,” she said during the MSC event. “The world has changed, the U.S. has changed, and Europe has changed.”

“The West has shown that it still has no common ground on how to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” political scientist Carlo Masala told the Bavarian daily Merkur on Monday. “Merkel and Macron in particular have failed to show where Europe’s future contribution to the transatlantic relationship might lie.”

Masala said it was noticeable that Merkel and Macron did little to deviate from their prepared speeches to provide any direct response to points Biden had made.

“Biden has brought China and Russia to the fore and committed himself to NATO,” she said. “Macron did not mention a single word about China and only said of Russia that we have to stay in dialogue.”

“Biden’s speech was an attempt to bring multilateralism back to the fore,” Masala said. “But if the U.S. finds that things are not working properly with the Europeans, the Biden administration will again act strongly unilaterally.”

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