US – EU Relations: Let’s Look Forward, Not Back

08 Apr 2021 – Written by Nel Abdullayeva & Shree Shah


  • The diplomatic relationship between the United States and the European Union dates back to 1953 and is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. 

  • During the presidency of Donald Trump, an environment of unpredictability and instability led to a breakdown in the transatlantic relationship. 

  • With the election of Joe Biden, there is now space for reflection and cooperation. A new transatlantic strategy must be developed, based on shared commonalities between the two leading world powers. 

  • Policymakers in the US and EU should look to the future and re-build the relationship by collaborating on common challenges, while at the same time recognising and overcoming the fundamental differences in their national values.  

  • The two powers must acknowledge their interdependence and demonstrate support for strong multilateral institutions and treaties, all the while maintaining a respectful dialogue and leaving the past behind.  

“Let’s look forward, not back. Let’s rejuvenate our relationship. Let’s build a partnership that delivers prosperity, stability, peace and security for citizens across our continents and around the world. There’s no time to wait – let’s get to work.”

 – Josep Borrell, EU High Representative

The relationship between the EU and the US is one of the oldest and most important bilateral relationships in the world. As the biggest economic and military powers in the world, the US and EU dominate global trade, play leading roles in international relations and in the development of global environmental policies. Over the last four years, the relationship has been tested by geopolitical power shifts, bilateral tensions and unilateral tendencies. With the election of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic and the new economic reality, there is an opportunity to design a new transatlantic agenda for global cooperation based on our common values, interests, and global influence. 

The History of US – EU Relations

History between the US and the EU goes back over 500 years to when the first immigrants arrived in North America. Some argue that this history accounts for the extent to which Europeans and Americans have similar values and maintain close political, economic, and cultural ties. Regardless of whether or not these similarities and ties can be attributed to this immigration story, it is true that the EU and the US have many common values and interests and remain interdependent on each other to pursue them. Diplomatic relations between the US and the European Union’s forerunners date back to 1953 with the European Coal and Steel Community (European Commission, 2006). In 1954, the European Commission established a delegation in Washington to represent their interests. And, seven years later in 1961, the US mission to the European Economic Community was established in Brussels. This relationship solidified further in 1972, when a group of Members of the United States House of Representatives, led by a Representative from the Ways and Means Committee, travelled to Brussels to meet with the European Parliament with the purpose of exchanging views and discussing issues such as subsidies, tariffs, anti-dumping initiatives, and general trade (European Parliament, 2013). This group of people came to be known as the United States European Community Interparliamentary Group and began to meet biyearly, once in the US and once in Europe. In addition to this interparliamentary exchange, a yearly presidential summit was established in 1990 by a transatlantic declaration between the US and the European Community in order to assess and cultivate transatlantic cooperation (European Commission, 2006).

After multiple iterations of a European Community, the European Union, as we know it today, was established in 1993. With this newly established EU, the US signed a new transatlantic declaration (NTA) in 1995, which agreed to provide joint action in promoting peace, stability, democracy, and development around the world, responding to global challenges, contributing to closer economic relations, and building bridges across the Atlantic (European Commission, 2006). The US and the EU signed the transatlantic economic partnership (TEP) in 1998, which further established their mutual economic interests and cooperation. In 1999, the European Union and the US House of Representatives formalised their cooperation with the transatlantic legislators’ dialogue (TLD); this interparliamentary relationship is the longest in the European Parliament’s history. 

For all the importance of these declarations and dialogues, the single most important aspect of transatlantic relations is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). NATO was created in 1949 to counter post-WWII communist expansion by the Soviet Union (BBC, 2019). It is considered the most powerful regional defence alliance in the world with all members agreeing that an attack against one member is to be considered an attack against all. Since its inception, it has added multiple countries to the agreement, growing from twelve member countries to thirty. Of these thirty members, twenty-one are also a part of the European Union. A recent Pew Research poll found that, of the 16 member countries surveyed, a median of 53% have a favourable view of the organisation (Fagan & Poushter, 2020). Furthermore, in a subset of 14 countries, a median of 60% say the US would defend a NATO ally. Interestingly, most NATO publics believe the US would be more likely to defend them from a Russian attack than their own countries. Despite recent claims that NATO is weakening and at risk, this research indicates that many Europeans, not just their governments or the European Union, believe in the treaty and this transatlantic relationship. NATO is as, if not more, integral to US and EU relations as any other agreement, be it defensive or economic. 

We can see that US and EU relations go back quite far, and their more substantial, modern relationship spans nearly all of the last century. This relationship can be considered one of the most powerful and strategically important relationships in the world. The EU and the US make up only 10% of the world’s population but account for roughly 40% of world trade and over 60% of world GDP; they are also each other’s biggest trading partners (European Commission, 2006). Additionally, there is almost no issue in the world that does not involve either the EU or the US, from the Middle East to counterterrorism, from biotechnology and agriculture to trade, from data privacy to aviation. Lastly, the two share not only the same values and interests but also common objectives and strategies in regard to the promotion of peace, stability, and economic development around the world. It is evident that there is a strong desire and need to cooperate on many fronts: defence, military, trade, development, agriculture, etc. Taking into account their interests and goals, there exists no viable alternative partner or relationship for the other.

US – EU Values and Interests

Understanding this interdependence is vital, but also important is understanding what values and interests the US and the EU actually have in common. The two share basic political and economic values that can be seen in their pursuit of democracy and economic openness and integration. When looking at security and the global order, both Americans and Europeans recognise that US unilateralism can be a threat. And, importantly, both have a favourable opinion of the European Union (Devlin, 2020). In terms of interests, the US and the EU believe that some of the greatest global threats are climate change, international terrorism/ISIS, and cyberattacks (Poushter & Huang, 2019). Another major concern for the two powers is the issue of immigration (Swan, 2014; Eupinions, 2020).

In addition to the commonalities, it is necessary to know the differences in values and interests between the US and EU. Europeans, in general, hold more favourable views on international cooperation. A 2020 Pew Research study shows that 58% of Europeans agree that their country should take other countries’ interests into account (Bell et al., 2020). According to another study by Pew Research Center, Americans are more individualistic than Western Europeans when it comes to their view on the role of the state (Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 2011). The majority of Americans consider it more important for people to be free to pursue their life’s goals without government interference than for the state to guarantee that nobody in society is in need. On a foreign level, while both the majority of Americans and Western Europeans believe that it is sometimes necessary to use military force to maintain order in the world, there is less agreement on whether their country should get UN approval or not before using military force to deal with international threats. The majority of Western Europeans agree that their country should get UN approval, whereas Americans are more evenly divided on the question. Where opinions differ the most, is whether or not a country should help other countries deal with their problems. The majority of people in the United States and France feel that their countries should focus on their own problems rather than helping others with theirs; surprisingly, this isolationist sentiment is stronger in France than in the US. The British are more evenly split on this question, and the majority of Spanish and Germans support engagement and helping other countries. It is interesting to note how opinions on this question vary so greatly within Western Europe.

The Erosion of US – EU Relations: From Trump to Biden 

Since the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump was a threat for European-American relations. During Trump’s presidential term, transatlantic relations were at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, including during the 2003 Iraq War. While previous EU-US disagreements have been over policies, since Trump’s election, the very value of transatlantic unity has been questioned. Donald Trump has shown a “blatant disregard for the shared values that have underpinned transatlantic alliance for decades,” according to one of the European ambassadors to the United States (Whineray, 2020). Trump’s relationship with Europe was unstable, often presenting a long-standing ally as a threat, undermining American-EU relations, injecting conditionality into NATO, and questioning the very values that had fostered transatlantic unity. 

One of the biggest challenges during the Trump presidency was the unpredictability and the difference between Trump’s rhetoric, tweets, and actual policy. According to Lauri Lepik, the Estonian ambassador to Washington and NATO, Trump “doesn’t value transatlantic relations — or he values them in a very monetary way” (Whineray, 2020). Initially policy-makers and White House officials tried to appease their European partners by stressing that Trump’s tweets were not reflective of policy. However, by the end of 2017, it was clear that Trump’s tweets were increasingly morphing into actual policy decisions. An example of this are the steel and aluminium tariffs he imposed after months of statements about a trade imbalance between the US and the EU. While the tariffs were not targeting the EU in particular, they also did not provide the exception that Europe expected (Whineray, 2020). This was followed by Trump pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, one of the greatest achievements of EU-US cooperation, in May 2018. 

In December of 2018, the new Secretary of State Michael Pompeo delivered a jarring speech, trying to set Trump’s often contradictory remarks about Europe straight, and at the same time arguing for the need to restore the role of the nation state in the liberal international order. In a room full of European policy-makers, Pompeo questioned whether “the system as currently configured, as it exists today, and as the world exists today,” works at all (Pompeo, 2018). Pompeo’s speech criticised the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, and the competence of international organisations at large. And while Pompeo referred to the EU as “America’s single largest trading partner,” he went on to question whether the EU is “ensuring that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats,” and ultimately urged European countries to reassert their sovereignty in the name of reforming the liberal order. This undermined Pompeo’s attempts to weave Trump’s love for nationalism into a cohesive trans-Atlantic strategy, and instead revealed the administration’s arrogance and incompetence in maintaining a trans-Atlantic strategy. 

The ties between the US and the EU only further unravelled after Trump fired his ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, after he testified against the president in his 2019 impeachment trial (Manson, 2020). The relationship became more frayed after the US declared its intent to leave the Paris Climate Agreement later that year (Holden, 2020). “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump declared in 2017. On November 4th 2020, mere weeks before Donald Trump lost his re-election campaign, the US had officially withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. This left the incoming Biden administration to re-balance the US-EU relations, and re-establish the US as a leader in the international liberal order that Trump had spent four years undermining.

Just hours after his election, President Joe Biden moved to reinstate the US to the Paris Climate Agreement and re-join the World Health Organization through executive action (Milman, 2021). After four years of unstable trans-Atlantic relations, it comes as no surprise that there is a sense of relief among European leaders. In a shift from the Trump era, the United States has now made its belief in global multilateralism clear, and there is now space for mutually respectful reflection and engagement. At the same time – it may be too soon to celebrate. While Europeans rejoiced at Biden’s victory in November 2020, polls show that a majority of Europeans don’t trust the American electorate not to elect another leader like Donald Trump in the future. The European Council on Foreign Relations’ (EFCR) poll shows that 32 percent of all respondents agree that Americans cannot be trusted, while only 27 percent disagree with that statement (Krastev & Leonard, 2021). Out of the German respondents, 53 percent believe that American voters can’t be trusted. Across the 11 countries covered by the ECFR’s poll, 57 percent believe that Biden’s win is beneficial for the EU, and 53 percent believe his victory is beneficial for their own country. Most notably, 51 percent of the respondents to the ECFR poll believe that the US is unlikely to repair its internal divisions and invest in solving international issues such as climate change, peace in the Middle East, relations with China, and European security (Krastev & Leonard, 2021).

The trust between the EU and the US has been ruptured. Moreover, many of the policy issues that arose between Europe and the Trump administration have not been resolved, along with the isolationist and anti-establishment sentiments that Trump has inspired in the United States. Trump’s departure will not erase divergences on trade, technology and taxation that have caused friction between the EU and the US in the last four years. However, there is now an opportunity to rediscover common values, enact change through purpose rather than conflict and revitalise the international liberal order. 

The Future of US – EU Relations

The remainder of this article develops key factors that will determine transatlantic relations during the Biden administration. The last four years have shown the importance of leadership for the management of the global liberal order, including the transatlantic union. There are significant steps that must be taken to re-build the trust that has been lost, and a robust transatlantic relationship. There are at least four principal implications: 

Acknowledge interdependence

Due to globalisation, countries are more interdependent than ever. However, the relationship between the US and the EU is unique as this interdependence extends beyond the economic realm. Not only do they have shared interests and values, but they also have similar approaches to many global issues. The US and the EU must recognise that global problems require global solutions, solutions which each will want to lead the way on. Across many fronts, the two are each other’s most significant foreign relationship; there exists no alternative to their partnership. With so many pressing global problems, the need to rely on and utilise each other is greater than ever.

Identify common challenges and recognise fundamental differences

The US and the EU face many of the same challenges, both global and domestic. On some, they have cooperated, while on others they have taken opposing positions. As explained above, they are committed to each other economically and militarily. They are each other’s biggest trade and investment partner and must continue to collaborate in order to foster transatlantic economic growth, as they did with the creation of the Transatlantic Economic Council in 2007. As global powers, they have a responsibility to promote peace and stability around the world, specifically in conflict zones. In the past, they have cooperated in conflict areas, often by utilising NATO. Whether through regional military alliances or other means, the two must continue to fulfil this responsibility and uphold their commitment to global peace. Another responsibility the US and the EU hold as global powers is to aid developing countries. Combined, the two account for 80% of global development aid. Trump, in the past, had proposed cutting foreign aid by 21% (Mason, 2020). Thankfully, the new Biden administration does not hold the same view. At a campaign event, the then foreign policy advisor for the Biden campaign and now the current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken stated that they would “bring aid back to the centre of our foreign policy” (Saldinger, 2020). It is in the best interests of both powers to continue collaborate on these many challenges, especially those that both Americans and Europeans find important, such as terrorism, cyberattacks, climate change, and immigration.

Understandably, all of this is easier said than done, especially when governments could be battling disparate beliefs in their populations about military action, the role of institutions, and the benefits of isolation versus engagement. The US and the EU must build on their populations’ belief in and support for a strong EU. Moreover, the EU must challenge the anti-EU sentiment that is creeping up across Europe. Similarly, given both populations’ concern about US unilateralism, the US must recommit itself to a more multilateral approach to global problems. This commitment to multilateralism is vital, especially when considering that Americans and the French do not support assisting other countries at the expense of their own country’s problems. This individualistic sentiment might be hard to challenge, but perhaps recognising that they would not be alone in the commitment to aid other countries might help in curbing this belief.

Support strong institutions and treaties

While the Trump administration has openly challenged the global multilateral system, international institutions and common procedures are crucial for the stability and predictability of international relations. For instance, we have seen that conflict prevention, peace-keeping and post-conflict reconstruction are best accomplished on a multilateral basis, through capable international institutions such as the United Nations. The management of international trade, development and finance also requires effective international institutions and financial agreements. And confronting the global climate crisis, can only be done effectively through global environmental conventions such as the Paris Climate Agreement. 

In order for this global multilateral order to function effectively, there must be symbolic and substantive support for these agreements shown by the leaders. When re-joining the Paris Agreement, John Kerry conceded that the US is returning “with a lot of humility, for the agony of the last four years” (Milman, 2021). Kerry, the US environmental envoy, has stressed the importance of cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, and has made clear the Biden administration’s determination to return as a leader in the Agreement. The US has also rejoined the World Health Organization – an important step, especially as the world continues to battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A domestic struggle between nationalist and multilateral ideals will most likely continue in the United States. However, as the world continues to face new challenges, exacerbated by Covid-19, it is crucial for the US to re-instate itself as Europe’s partner in the liberal world order, and work together to meet these challenges. 

Maintain a respectful dialogue

As stated above, there are value differences between the US and Europe, as well as policy disagreements that won’t disappear overnight. However, while re-building transatlantic relations, it is important for both parties to avoid accusations, demeaning in tone and form, as well as arrogant statements. Arrogant statements such as Pompeo’s questioning of EU efficiency, and whether the EU ensures that the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of EU bureaucrats, should not be repeated. There have been back-and-forth statements from the Trump administration and the EU over the last four years, which might have provided short-term domestic political popularity, but have ultimately contributed to public distrust on both sides of the Atlantic. In order to foster transatlantic trust, respectful and open-minded dialogues must occur. Instead of focusing on the past, there should be a focus on the future.


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Recommended citation:

Abullayeva, N., Shah, S. (2021) US – EU Relations: Let’s Look Forward, Not Back, IDRN, 08 April. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].