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12 November 2021

Have the US and EU healed relations?

The two sides have shown they can cooperate, but there is still trouble ahead.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – The meeting on 10 November between Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and US President Joe Biden seems, by all accounts, to have been positive and productive. After it, Von der Leyen announced that we should expect to see in the coming week “a widening of sanctions” against Belarus, which is currently attempting to push migrants over its border with Poland, apparently in an act of retaliation against EU sanctions.

Von der Leyen said she and Biden “absolutely shared the same assessment” and that the American president agreed the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko is engaged in a “hybrid attack” against the European Union. Von der Leyen also asserted that Biden supported the EU’s position on Northern Ireland: namely, that Britain should not suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, which was intended to avoid a hard border with the EU on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

Her visit follows a flurry of positive developments in the US-EU relationship. At the G20 in Rome from 30-31 October, the two announced they would suspend the steel and aluminium tariffs put in place during Donald Trump’s presidency, marking something of a turning point on trade.

It’s a welcome change for those rooting for strong US-EU ties. Relations were poor during the Trump era, and despite Biden’s assurances that “America is back”, there have been strains on the transatlantic relationship in recent months, with many European officials feeling betrayed by America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Relations with France in particular have been rocky. Paris felt it had been blindsided by the Aukus defence pact between the US, the UK and Australia and the cancellation of an Australian contract to buy French submarines. And until this month, the United States kept in place travel bans against Europeans, even though Americans have been able to travel to EU member states since this summer. 

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[See also: What does the Aukus pact mean for global relations?]

The last two weeks, then, have marked an upturn in US-EU relations. But American and European officials alike would do well to remember that there is trouble ahead. The simmering crisis in Bosnia, from which Republika Srpska under Milorad Dodik appears to be threatening to secede, and the situation with Belarus will require the United States and European Union to collaborate. There will be inevitable differences in the approaches that the United States take towards China and Russia.

Recent events serve as a welcome reminder that the United States and European Union do know how to cooperate. But the fact that there’s something surprising or relieving about a good US-EU meeting is a reminder of how bad things can get. Naming an alliance or partnership is one thing; acting as allies or partners is another.

[See also: EU unity over the Belarus migrant crisis may not last]

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