No easy ride for EU-US even with Biden’s francophone team
US-president elect Joe Biden’s appointment of French speakers to top positions has cheered Paris but France knows it will take more than mother tongue chats to overcome transatlantic strains, even after the departure of Donald Trump.
As his future secretary of state, Biden has named former deputy national security advisor Anthony Blinken, who spent part of his childhood in France and is fluent in French.
The special envoy for climate, former secretary of state John Kerry, spends his holidays in Brittany, while Michele Flournoy, in the running for defense secretary, studied in Belgium where she learned French.
The atmosphere of exchanges with this team is likely to be markedly more cheerful than contacts with the Trump administration that culminated in a frosty closed door visit to Paris this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But an extra dose of bonhomie will not make strategic disagreements — that range from the future of NATO to policy towards China — go away.
Indeed, with conspicuous timing days after Biden’s election victory was confirmed, a French journal published a mammoth interview with Macron where he outlined his vision for a Europe that acts independently of the United States.
Europe should have “strategic autonomy”, he told Le Grand Continent, adding that it should “not become the vassal of this or that power and no longer have a say”.
– ‘Synergy’ with Berlin? –
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said he was “particularly happy” about Blinken’s appointment as he had worked with him while serving as French defence minister.
Video: G20: Trump defends withdrawal from Paris accord (Reuters – US Video Online)
A French government source described Blinken as “francophone and francophile” and said he and Le Drian used the informal “tu” for “you” when speaking.
“Can France take advantage of the Francophile leanings of several officials? Yes, but with conditions”, said Jean-Claude Beaujour, vice-president of the France-Ameriques association.
It will be necessary that “Berlin and Paris have a very strong synergy vis-a-vis the United States” and that “the EU is not as divided as it tends to be”.
He emphasised that US officials above all follow a Europe policy, without a specific approach to any single country such as France.
But under Macron’s rule there has not always been harmony between Paris and Berlin, and in Le Grand Continent interview he rather undiplomatically took aim at German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer who has been a prominent proponent of the United States remaining a key part of Europe’s defence calculus.
“Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider,” she wrote in an opinion piece in Politico this month.
Macron said “I profoundly disagree” with her argument, which he described as a “historical misinterpretation”, adding icily that “fortunately, if I understood things correctly, the Chancellor (Angela Merkel) does not share this point of view.”
– ‘Not fundamentally different’ –
Benjamin Haddad, Europe director of the Atlantic Council think tank, said the new Biden team will want to work better with Europe.
“But this will mean more pressure on the Europeans. We should not have any illusions. On questions like 5G and Chinese investment in infrastructure they will ask us to choose sides. But this will be done in concert.”
The Trump administration had wanted Europe to match its confrontational approach on China and was unsettled by telecoms giant Huawei eyeing a role in the building of new 5G infrastructure and Europe taking a softer tack towards Beijing.
“It will undoubtedly be less unpleasant, but not fundamentally different”, said a French government source, who asked not to be named.
“Europe will undoubtedly be better treated but the United States will not put us back in the centre, their concerns will remain centred on Asia,” the source said.
In his interview, Macron also spoke about the need to “prevent the Chinese-American duopoly” and said that the world was at “breaking point in terms of the capitalist system”.
An American diplomatic source, who also asked not to be named, added: “I don’t think everything reverts back to normal but we will have more normalcy in transatlantic relations.”