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US Election 2020 - Europe is watching as Biden and Trump battle it out

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The last four years have been a roller coaster. In 2016 Americans voted for a president without precedent. At the time of Trump’s election, there was much speculation over whether he would stick to his statements made on the campaign trail. Was it just electioneering, or would he really pull out of the Paris agreement? Start trade wars with – well – everyone? Harangue NATO partners? Build that famous wall? We now know at least some of the answers to these questions, writes Catherine Feore.

In her recent ‘State of the European Union’ address European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Europe must deepen and refine its partnerships with its friends and allies: “We might not always agree with recent decisions of the White House. But we will always cherish the trans-Atlantic alliance based on shared values and history and an unbreakable bond between our people.”

Von der Leyen is proposing a new trans-Atlantic agenda: “whatever may happen later this year”. While this may be the right course of action, it is difficult to see a meeting of minds with a president who has declared: “The European Union was formed in order to take advantage of the United States, I know that. They know I know that, but other presidents had no idea.” Rubbish, but if you spent time refuting every Trump (mis)statement you’d need a lot more space.

But what about a Biden presidency? Would that be back to business as usual and a relatively sane and normal relationship? Pauline Manos, chairwoman of Democrats Abroad says: “We have seen much support from Europeans, as they, too, see the implications of another four years of a Trump presidency on US foreign policy and our standing in the world. Yet it is important to remember that a President Biden will not simply be a continuation of the Obama presidency. The nation has changed in ways we probably couldn’t have imagined, with the need to address health, climate, economic and racial justice crises even more urgent.”

It’s worth remembering though that even before Trump, Obama was looking at resets – securing a commitment from NATO partners to increase their contribution to the alliance and turning American’s gaze to its interests across that even wider ocean towards Asia. When the Bush administration faced pushbacks from NATO allies France and Germany over the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld made his divisive distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe.

Trump, more than any of his predecessors, has sharpened some minds about Europe’s future relations with the US. When, in a recent poll sponsored by the Clingendael Institute, the Dutch, who are normally staunchly Atlanticist in their outlook, and somewhat Eurosceptical, were asked if they supported deeper cooperation with France and Germany, 72% supported this idea. It isn’t unreasonable to think that the European Union needs to stand on its own two feet and have a grown-up foreign policy, that it needs to look seriously at providing its own defence and security needs. However, this “geopolitical” Commission has found it as difficult as its forebears in creating unity of thought and action.

The EU’s regulation of Big Tech and proposal for a digital sales tax and a prospective carbon border tax are going to be contentious to either a Trump or Biden administration. The stakes may be about to get a lot higher if the Commission takes an even stronger approach on monopolistic tech forces. But there are nevertheless many areas where Europe has been strengthened by joint action, and if not joint action, similar outlooks.

One area where we have witnessed the power and influence of the United States is in the implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, most notably on the commitment to keep a “soft” border on the island of Ireland. Following the UK’s proposal for an Internal Market Bill that would be in breach with its commitments, Biden made an unequivocal statement: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

This may be a special case, since the successful negotiations were led by Democratic Senator George Mitchell. The only EU leader who was supportive of a Trump victory in 2016 was Europe’s “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orban. Trump and Orban have been buddies ever since. Trump has embraced Boris Johnson and spoken favourably of many other authoritarian leaders across the world. He has berated the then prime minister of the UK Theresa May and the chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel in public. This time round, Orban,  the Slovenian Prime Minister and Polish President have indicated their support. 

While the State Department under Obama had little influence over developments in Hungary, the moral force of their statements were important and would be important in countries like Poland that seek American approval and support against their Russian neighbours. A new president who spoke up against the destruction of media freedom, the attacks on judicial independence and the rule of law could be very influential and persuasive in a future Polish election.

We will have to wait and see. There are many factors that could be decisive in the forthcoming election, but EU relations will not be top of the concerns of US voters. Relations with Europe will be low on that list. But if there is a new president who wants to fight climate change, who supports global action against the pandemic, believes in liberal democracy, sees the strength in multilateralism - but recognises the need for reform, this will already be a great result for the European Union. America can still be a shining city on the hill.

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Brexit: ‘Frankly, I cannot tell you if there will be a deal’ von der Leyen 

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Addressing the European Parliament this morning (25 November) European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she couldn’t say whether the EU would be able to reach a deal with the UK on its future relationship before the end of the year. She said the EU side was willing to be creative, but that it would not put the integrity of the Single Market in question. 

While there has been genuine progress on a number of important questions, such as law enforcement, judicial co-operation, social security coordination and transport, von der Leyen said that the three ‘crucial’ topics of level playing field, governance and fisheries remained to be resolved.

The EU is seeking robust mechanisms to ensure that competition with the UK remains free and fair over time. This is not something that the EU can skate over, given its proximity and the scale of existing trade ties and integration in EU supply chains. The UK has to date been ambiguous about how it would deviate from European norms that it played no small role in shaping, but the logic of Brexit supporters is that the UK could become more competitive through deregulation; a point of view that obviously makes some EU partners a little ill at ease.

‘Trust is good, but law is better’

The need for clear legal commitments and remedies has become starker following the UK’s decision to introduce an Internal Market Bill that includes provisions that would allow it to deviate from parts of the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. Von der Leyen said that strong governance was essential in "the light of recent experience".

Fisheries

On fisheries, von der Leyen said that no-one questioned the UK’s sovereignty of its own waters, but held that the EU needed "predictability and guarantees for fishermen and fisherwomen who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries".

Von der Leyen thanked the parliament for their support and understanding in the difficulties such a late agreement presented to them. A final deal will be several hundred pages long and need to be legally scrubbed and translators; this is unlikely to be ready by the next plenary session of the European Parliament in mid-December. It is generally acknowledged that if a deal is to be arrived at a plenary on 28 December will be needed. Von der Leyen said: “We will walk those last miles together.”

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UK will remain global leader for asset management after Brexit: Sunak

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British Finance Minister Rishi Sunak (pictured) said on Tuesday (24 November) that he was determined that the United Kingdom would remain a global leader for asset management after Brexit, writes William Schomberg.

“We’re beginning a new relationship with the EU. And as we do so, we are determined that the UK will remain a global leader for asset management,” Sunak said in comments to a conference organized by The Investment Association, an industry group.

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Irish PM hopeful of Brexit trade deal outline by end of week

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Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday (23 November) that he hoped that the outline of a Brexit free trade deal will have emerged by the end of the week and urged unprepared smaller Irish exporters to get ready for change, whether there is a deal or no deal. The European Union’s Brexit negotiator said on Monday that big differences persisted but that both sides were pushing hard for a deal, as talks resumed, writes Padraic Halpin.

Moves will have to be made on some of the key issues such as fisheries and the so-called “level playing field”, Martin said. But he added that he had got a sense of progress from both negotiating teams, and that a presentation last week from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was probably one of the more hopeful to date.

“I would be hopeful that, by the end of this week, that we could see the outlines of a deal, but that remains to be seen. It is down to political will, both in the United Kingdom and I’m clear the political will is there from the European Union,” Martin told reporters.

On a visit to Dublin port, Ireland’s largest freight and passenger port, Martin said that, while 94% of Irish importers from the UK and 97% of exporters had completed the necessary customs paperwork to continue trading with Britain, he was worried by the take-up among some small and medium-sized firms.

“The one concern I’d have is maybe there is a complacency among some SMEs out there that everything will be OK and ‘Sure if they get a deal, won’t it be OK?’. It will be different, and you have to get that into your heads,” Martin said. “The world will change and it will not be as seamless as it once was. The bottom line is you need to get ready. It is not too late, people just need to knuckle down now.”

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