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BERLIN — Forty-eight hours after Joe Biden emerged as the winner of the U.S. presidential election, Europe was still basking in the afterglow.
Not even Angela Merkel could resist a victory lap, delivering a live statement on German television to congratulate Biden and Kamala Harris. Legend has it that Merkel only agreed to seek another term as chancellor in 2017 because of her dislike of Donald Trump, whose name was conspicuously absent from her remarks on Monday.)
For many European leaders, Biden’s win represented more than just the prayed-for end of Trump’s presidency — it was a welcome shot in the arm for Europe’s battered brand of centrist politics as it battles its own populist demons, a glimmer of hope that the “good guys” can win.
But the unbridled enthusiasm of the Continent’s dominant political class for Biden reveals another reality: These days, Europe’s only friends in Washington are Democrats.
Since Trump came to power, Europe’s center-left and center-right parties — from Germany to France, Ireland to Finland — have made little secret of their preference for America’s Democrats. As a consequence, the traditional ties between the Republicans and center-right parties like Germany’s Christian Democrats or Ireland’s Fianna Fáil have frayed.
Trump didn’t even bother to call Ireland’s new prime minister, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, over the summer to congratulate him on taking office. Martin had previously encouraged Europe to “stand up” to the American president.
The tension between Merkel and Trump has been palpable from the beginning. Amid that discord, the acrimony between the Republicans and Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who long saw themselves as comrades in arms, has also been on the rise.
“How can you not support the Republican candidate?” Kerry Reddington, the chairman of Republicans Overseas Germany, shouted last week at the CDU’s Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, after a debate on German television.
Röttgen, who is running to lead the CDU and with hopes of succeeding Merkel as chancellor next year, made clear his strong preference for Biden and that he thinks Trump is dangerous. Reddington vowed to report the German’s impertinence to Republican National Committee in the U.S., a threat that evoked a slight shrug from Röttgen.
“Traditionally, the CDU’s relationship to the Republicans was stronger,” Röttgen told POLITICO a few weeks before that confrontation. “Historically speaking, the Republicans were much more engaged in international affairs during the postwar period. The relationship reached a high point with the older George Bush during reunification. What we’ve been forced to witness more recently is the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by Donald Trump.”
If the Republican Party doesn’t revert to its transatlantic, multilateral iteration post-Trump, it’s difficult to see a rapprochement anywhere on the horizon.
It doesn’t help that the European politicians who have aligned themselves with Trump are on the political fringe. Along with authoritarian rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Trump’s supporters include people such as Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme and his son, Finance Minister Martin Helme. The latter raised eyebrows this week by asserting “there can be no question” that the result of the U.S. presidential election was “falsified.”
“If this works, if Trump is taken down, the U.S. Constitution will no longer be in effect,” he added. The elder Helme resigned Monday over comments he made about the “deep state” being responsible for Biden’s victory.
Indeed, amid the estrangement between the Republicans and their traditional European allies, far-right movements like the Helmes’ Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) have taken their place.
In the throes of their Trump aversion, European officials appear not to have given the risks associated with aligning Europe with one half of the American political spectrum much thought. That might be because most members of the “transatlantic community,” a bubble of think tankers, academics and policymakers, lean to the left of center.
Asked recently what effect the clear preference of Germany’s ruling political class for Democrats could have on Germany’s standing in Washington in the long term, Emily Haber, the German ambassador. seemed confused by the question.
“No German diplomat will ever take sides because it’s not our job,” she said.
Trouble is, that doesn’t change the reality that their bosses are taking sides.
Needless to say, Europe’s enthusiasm for Biden and the Democrats will not be lost on the Republicans.
While some Europeans are leery of what could happen in four years if Trump or someone in his mold returns to the White House, chances are those concerns will fade if, as expected, Biden reaffirms the American commitment to Europe.
Despite calls from Merkel and other European leaders for the EU to take “more responsibility” for its own future, the comfort of being safely ensconced under the American security umbrella is likely to trigger Europe’s old instincts to procrastinate. That’s particularly true if “responsibility” is defined in terms of more robust military spending. As Europe weathers the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, lavish budgets for defense have become even harder to justify to an already skeptical electorate, especially in Germany.
Inevitably, it will be easier to just rely, as ever, on the Americans. At least until a Republican returns to the White House.