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Opinion Joe Biden will need to hit the ground running to restore ties with Europe

U.S. flags are hung in Ballina, Ireland, on Saturday after Joe Biden, whose ancestral home is in Ballina, was elected president of the United States. (Peter Morrison/AP)

As Pennsylvania finally tipped the balance of the U.S election — making it clear that President Trump will soon have to leave the White House — a feeling of immense relief started sweeping through Europe.

European leaders stumbled across each other in the race to extend congratulations. The Irish prime minister was keen to be first, then came nearly everyone else. London was in a rush not to be seen as too late, and Budapest and Warsaw came somewhat grudgingly toward the end.

The past four years with a person in the Oval Office who was openly hostile toward the European Union, despised old and faithful allies, threatened to blow up NATO, bowed to the Kremlin and tended to see trade as treason have been, to put it in diplomatic terms, somewhat testing.

To be sure, Trump will be president until Jan. 20 and there is still plenty of fear that he will use his remaining time in office to blow up more bridges and plant mines for Joe Biden’s incoming administration. We are already seeing this in the sudden rush to impose new sanctions against Iran.

But after inauguration, there is bound to be a grace period, as Biden puts the United States back into the Paris climate agreement, tries to buttress the World Health Organization, and seeks to reenter the Iran nuclear deal to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. An extension of the New START Treaty will certainly also be welcomed.

Brussels? Berlin? Dublin? Lisbon, which holds the rotating European Union presidency? Which capital will be the first to host the new president on his first European trip? Hardly London.

There is an urgent need to sit down and prevent further confrontations over tariffs, digital commerce, data flows or carbon taxes. It doesn’t make sense to impose further pain on either Boeing or Airbus as these major industries struggle. But a return to the ambitious schemes for deeper transatlantic ties of the Obama years looks highly unlikely. Europe has noted the heavy dose of economic nationalism in the Democratic platform.

Covid-19 is an area of obvious urgent cooperation. The threat of vaccine nationalism must be cast aside; there is a mutual interest in reforming and strengthening global health cooperation, with the WHO at its center.

Climate change will also become a priority in Washington, with Biden talking about joining the E.U. in its commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050. Talks on making the coming Paris accord review conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in late 2021 a success should be planned soon.

China will certainly loom large over all these discussions. Concerns have certainly been deepening in Europe, but with China possibly doubling the size of its economy by 2035, talk of “decoupling” hardly sounds realistic. You simply can’t decouple from the world’s largest economy.

But the E.U., the United States and Japan need to come together to secure a level playing field for economic interaction with China. The United States and the E.U. must also work closely to stand up to China’s digital authoritarianism.

Biden’s European honeymoon won’t last long. There’s a lot to tackle. The Trump years stimulated a somewhat confused debate about Europe’s “strategic autonomy,” and while it can be taken for granted that Paris will argue that this approach must continue, Berlin will be more keen to give a new Atlantic renaissance a genuine chance.

But Trump will leave a strong imprint on many issues of concern to Europe. We can’t really rule out the uncomfortable possibility that in the longer perspective, it could be Biden’s rather than Trump’s approach that will be seen as the parenthesis.

It drives the message that Europe, while fully embracing the change in U.S. leadership, must be ready to stand more firmly on its own legs in the years ahead.

That, by the way, will also make the E.U. a much more useful partner for the United States.

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