Who’s Biden gonna call after Merkel?

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Back when Henry Kissinger supposedly posed the question, “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” the European Union was a collection of just six countries in Western Europe. It’s now 27 nations, speaking 24 official languages, stretching from the Arctic Circle to Cyprus, which is closer to Syria than any EU country.

For a decade and a half, the dominant figure in Europe — and the person most often on the other end of the line when the West Wing called — was Angela Merkel, the continent’s schoolmarm who kept her pesky rivals in Paris and Westminster, and her spendthrift Mediterranean neighbors, from making too much trouble.

Media labels like “Queen of Europe” and eventually “Leader of the Free World” — an unsubtle dig at former President Donald Trump’s leadership — tempted outsiders to believe that Europe had a single leader on most issues.

If that was ever true, it’s no longer the case.

Germany’s national election in late September ended in a near stalemate: a lame duck Merkel will remain in power as coalition talks drag on, and whoever replaces her will struggle to fill the space she occupied in global politics.

Four consecutive American presidents relied on Merkel to help them identify European consensus that could be shaped into practical transatlantic cooperation. Each also learned quickly that she was unafraid to stare them down on issues from military spending to the Nordstream II gas pipeline.

With Merkel, what you saw was what you got. That's not always true of the leaders competing to fill the power vacuum she leaves. Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and the EU executive in Brussels are less predictable and have poorer track records delivering on their promises to America.

Johnson — now free of many EU constraints and ever seeking to emulate his hero Winston Churchill — is determined to capitalize on Germany’s paralysis by gluing himself to the Biden administration for the rest of 2021.


Macron aspires to be the preeminent leader in Europe, but he’s fighting for his political life at home and out of favor in Washington because of his promotion of European “strategic autonomy” — a policy approach actively supported by Beijing.

Brussels casts itself as the third in a global G3 with the U.S. and China, but its new harder-edged industrial and trade policies, and lack of military muscle, make it an unlikely dance partner for Washington.

Anthony Gardner, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the European Union, rejects the idea that Washington needs to choose a European capital to focus on. “It’s the wrong question. There is rarely a single number to call. It’s always been messy, and after this German election, even more so,” he said.

Gardner argues there are four capitals — Berlin, London, Paris, and either Brussels or Rome — that can act as a kind of European Quad, called-up as needed to work with Washington according to their individual strengths.

“You can’t treat Europe as a one-call place. It’s like calling Africa a country,” said a senior British diplomat.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told POLITICO in an interview that “The EU cannot defend Europe. Eighty percent of NATO's defense expenditure comes from non-EU allies.” The clear takeaway is the EU is not an adequate proxy for Europe when it comes to security. “The EU cannot be an alternative, cannot replace, NATO,” he said.

But transatlantic alliances aren't stopping Europe's politicians from trying to be first among equals. British ministers and other officials are confident that America’s overriding interest in national security means the history of personal insults traded between Johnson and Democratic party leaders will fade into the background.

“If you want to talk about defense, why would you call Germany?” the British diplomat asked, pointing to Germany’s chronically underfunded military.

“There’s only one NATO member that can deploy globally in one day, or one night, and that’s us. It was true 20 years ago, and it’s true today,” the diplomat said. “The French get close, but they don’t have the ability to work with the U.S. in the same way,” noting London’s membership in the Five Eyes intelligence network. So much for European unity.

Downing Street is pressing home the advantage it recently secured by joining the new AUKUS defense and trade agreement. As host of the United Nations climate conference known as COP26, which takes place in Glasgow in November, the U.K. is now putting climate at the forefront of the “special relationship,” knowing that Biden needs COP26 to succeed, and London will be able to take part of the credit for any success.

The friction France can’t afford

The diplomatic debacle over the Australian submarine deal couldn’t come at a worse time for Macron. By petulantly emphasizing France’s humiliation without making any shift in France’s relatively conciliatory policy toward China, Macron won a promise of future in-depth consultation from Washington, while ensuring ongoing friction in the relationship.

France has in recent years increased its coordination with the U.S. military, and as the most global military power inside the EU is a critical part of the worldwide fight against terror. Yet most of its recent new defense partnerships have been within Europe; Macron positions himself as the strongest proponent of European “strategic autonomy.”


Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, said that “for the Biden administration it's China policy above all else, and in that league even Australia delivers more than France.” Russia policy is another problem for France’s competitive position in the Biden administration’s alliance hierarchy.

Downing Street takes a hard line against Russian President Vladimir Putin — still driven by anger at Russian agents conducting the Skripal assassination attempt on British soil in 2018 — Macron, in contrast, sought to invite Russia back to the G-7 table in 2019.

By the end of 2021, Macron may have returned his relationships in Washington to a steady state. But by then, he’ll have Merkel’s successor vying for White House attention.

France will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2022 — a useful platform for political theater — but one that Macron will mostly be forced to use in service of his reelection campaign, where his polling average is 24 percent ahead of the May 2022 French presidential election.

With France flailing and the U.K. out of the EU, Germany remains critical. “[It is] the big player in the room on most issues,” including energy security and how Europe fiscally supports its post-Covid economic recovery, said Anthony Gardner, the former ambassador.

While Germany’s strengths are in the civilian realm, “that is what actually maintains and sustains and propels relationships between countries,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Rather than out-compete its neighbors militarily, the strategic challenge for Germany’s new government is “to provide its European partners with clear-cut ideas about how the EU can compete in a divided and crisis-shaken world,” said Jana Puglierin, head of European Council on Foreign Relation’s Berlin office. “It will need to lead the EU towards a post-dependent Atlanticism.”

What about Brussels?

Amid the chaos and belligerence of the Trump administration, EU governments decided they needed to make a push for “strategic autonomy” from both the U.S. and China. “There is no longer a table in Europe with people waiting for the U.S. to come back and become our leader,” said Shada Islam, a member of the European Policy Centre’s Strategic Council, a non-partisan think tank.

It’s fair to say the concept is loosely defined and poorly funded. But there’s already one big winner: Brussels.

In recent years the EU has established itself as the world’s main digital police force, set the bar for many of climate policies now spreading globally, and has negotiated more than triple the number of trade agreements (46) as the United States (14), making it the undisputed global leader.

“This is the right time to take our autonomy strategy very seriously,” Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares told POLITICO, pointing to the EU sharpening its approach to industrial policy, trade agreements, defense research and Covid recovery plans.

When pressed by POLITICO to choose who Biden should call in Europe, Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland from Merkel’s center-right political group, said: “Right now, it would be Ursula von der Leyen,” the president of the European Commission.

“Why? Because she holds the key to the most important issues at the moment: Covid, climate and digital. These three issues frame the future and that’s why she is a good point of first contact,” Stubb said.

Even British officials concede — after several years of bruising Brexit negotiations — that Brussels is rising. “If you really want the EU together on an issue, then you probably call Brussels,” said the British diplomat.

Washington recognizes this reality: it agreed to establish a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which met for the first time in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. The European delegation was fielded by the European Commission, rather than national capitals, reflecting the Commission’s exclusive power to negotiate trade deals on the EU’s behalf.

Against the odds, both sides say the meeting was a success: ”Much better than what could have been expected,” European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager told POLITICO, describing in-depth unscripted discussions about how the transatlantic allies could rewrite digital and trade rulebooks in the face of rising competition and strategic threats from China.

What neither Brussels nor Washington counted on was France attempting to scuttle the meeting in the lead-up to it.

Humiliated by the announcement that the U.S will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines, which scuttled France’s $60 billion-dollar submarine deal, Paris first attempted to postpone the meeting, then worked to block the EU from even agreeing on clear objectives for the discussions.

Despite the interference, EU officials turned the Pittsburgh meeting into a foundation for closer transatlantic cooperation in 2022.

The process may have worked better if German officials — out of action due to Sunday’s election — had been able to help smooth out internal disputes, but if these complications feel familiar, it’s because they are.

Stubb said that even European leaders used to joke at their summit table about President Barack Obama’s difficulties engaging with the continent. “The legendary joke goes that Obama wanted to talk to Europe, but forgot the time difference. He caught an answering machine that told him: ’You have called the EU. For a German view press one, for a French view press two.’”

Peter Rough, a Hudson Institute senior fellow, warns that whomever Washington chooses to call, the real problem isn’t navigating Europe’s telephone directory: it’s that “whenever Washington picks up the phone, Xi and Putin are now scrambling the connection.”

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