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All should be quieter on the Western front

Vassilis Ntousas / Dec 2022

Image: Shutterstock

 

Almost a month after an extremely consequential US midterm election, the initial collective sigh of relief felt by most Europeans seems to have given way to pause, if not revived concern. President Macron’s recent official state visit to Washington and the gloomy mood in the recent EU-US Trade and Technology Council summit both laid bare some of the emerging rifts.

Instead of focusing overly on these irritants, however, both transatlantic partners should rather concentrate on how to work better and faster together to tackle some of the bigger issues. The window of opportunity to do so may prove short-lived.

The midterms that flipped the script

Still reeling from the traumatic Trump years, Europeans across the political spectrum had been wary of the implications of the 2022 midterm elections, in both policy and political terms.

A fully Republican-controlled Congress, and the election of so many Trump-backed candidates that would have come with it, would have likely made every single transatlantic conversation, from digital and trade to foreign policy, far more cumbersome, turbulent, and ridden with riddles rather than answers.

In the same vein, had the midterms resoundingly rewarded MAGA Republicanism, this would have had a significant impact on political dynamics in Europe too. Many European states are grappling with their own versions of Trump-like movements, leaders, and tactics, and the electoral success of the former president’s ethnonationalist platform would have emboldened efforts to fuel polarisation, peddle disinformation, and challenge election legitimacy, on both sides of the Atlantic. 

The fact that the much-vaunted wave failed to materialise in this surprisingly atypical midterm cycle has given both transatlantic partners a welcome reprieve. The narrow Republican majority in the House of Representatives might make a domestic obstructionist agenda a reality, but it will likely not jeopardise the fundamentals of transatlantic agreement on all the key foreign policy dossiers. The fact that Trump’s influence seems to be waning within the Republican party might also serve as a hopeful reminder that the political pendulum is capable of some course-correction if it swings too much in one direction.

The risks that remain

Avoiding this worst-case scenario that would have left American democracy significantly weaker and the transatlantic partnership in a serious limbo was almost existentially important for forces on both sides of the Atlantic that want to see this partnership grow and deepen even further.

And yet, two sobering examples showcase the discernible risk that exists for both the US and Europe to fail to capitalise on this opportunity they were handed in the wake of the midterms result.

First, Ukraine.

Although European support to Kyiv has not been entirely reliant on the US, the Biden administration has offered the lion’s share of political leadership, financial assistance, and military support as part of the West’s aid to the country. A more solid conservative majority in the House could have risked his kind of unstinting support, given the growing opposition to the policy within Republican ranks in the past few months, with various members calling for the aid provided to be curtailed, or even halted. A more limited and less decisive US response could have in turn carried over to Europe, upending the united front that so far held fast and undermining the continent’s ability, resolve, and willingness to support Ukraine, even as Kyiv’s needs continue to grow.

Nonetheless, despite having avoided this quagmire, tensions between the US and Europe have grown in recent weeks. As the war rages on, the perennial debates about burden-sharing have resurfaced, with Americans griping about the sluggish pace of Europe’s support, even as Europeans insist on the unprecedented nature of what they are already doing. Demonstrating this soured mood, European officials and diplomats have also started tossing around recriminations, not so subtly accusing the US of profiting from the conflict, selling more weapons and gas at higher prices, while Europe bears the economic brunt of the war. 

Secondly, tightly linked to this is the mounting transatlantic bickering over the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, President Biden’s flagship climate legislation, which comprises vast amounts to fund America’s transition to green energy. For the US, this painstakingly negotiated package represents the best bipartisan effort in decades to craft federal policy that ratchets up domestic climate action and decarbonises its economy. Europeans, on the other hand, feel that the incentives included in the package—mainly tax credits for low-carbon investments and a hefty subsidy scheme for made-in-America electric cars and batteries—unfairly skew competition and raise the spectre of having green investment siphoned away from the EU, leading to job losses across the continent.

The need for perspective

Of course, the breadth and width of transatlantic ties are such that frictions, or even feuds of this kind, inevitably arise; they have done so in the past and will do so again in the future. And in the end, a meaningful compromise is more likely than not to be found on this and other fronts where the transatlantic partners diverge either in tone or substance.

The point here, however, is different.

Both transatlantic partners should recognise not only the kind of bullet that was dodged in these midterms but also that the relief these elections brought may end up being temporary. 2024 is just around the corner, but it may well lead to a return to the turbulent days of the past that will effectively derail any progress achieved in the meantime.  

Each partner should therefore shoulder the responsibility that comes with this realisation.

On the Ukraine front, for instance, instead of getting bogged down in yet another discussion about budget mismatches, Europeans really need to step up their support for the country, because, while unprecedented, their response so far remains underwhelming, sub-optimally coordinated, and slowly delivered. Regarding IRA, the Biden administration should in turn realise that what happened was an unforced error that needs urgent remedy before things escalate further. Clearly, a transatlantic retaliatory subsidy war is the last thing either side wants or should be pursuing.

This is a time when the transatlantic partnership should be firing on all cylinders, and the main question should not be whether but how both sides can leverage unity to reach the maximum and optimum of joint action.

Of course, sometimes differences even among the closest of allies can neither be hidden nor muted. And we are still a long way from having a truly fragmented West.

But bilateral irritants like these hamper transatlantic efforts to make the relationship truly strategic and divert energy from even more important issues. Given the current geopolitical stakes and the profound dangers that lie ahead, all should be somewhat quieter on the Western front.

Vassilis Ntousas

Vassilis Ntousas

December 2022

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