Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, saluted a “new dawn” in the US following the departure of Donald Trump as she called for a revival of the tattered transatlantic partnership.
Speaking to the European parliament ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration as America’s 46th president on Wednesday, Ms von der Leyen said the EU would be seeking joint action with Washington in areas including the Covid-19 response and climate change.
Mr Trump’s impending departure has been marked by open relief in European capitals following a tempestuous four-year period in which the former property baron stoked trade tensions with the EU, questioned the Nato military alliance, and ditched US commitments to the Paris climate change agreement and Iran nuclear deal.
The frayed relations have left a lasting impact in European capitals despite the warm welcome they will offer the new US president. A drive for the EU to achieve greater “strategic autonomy” in areas ranging from industrial policy and defence to finance and the role of the euro took on greater urgency given Mr Trump’s willingness to shred previous norms.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council of EU leaders, said on Wednesday that the arrival of Mr Biden marked an opportunity for the rejuvenation of the alliance between the EU and US — but also warned that the European bloc would “not wait for permission to take its own decisions”.
He laid out five priorities for the EU to pursue with the US — boosting multilateral co-operation, fighting Covid-19, tackling climate change, boosting growth and joining forces on security.
“On the first day of his mandate, I address a solemn proposal to the new US president: let’s build a new founding pact,” he said on Wednesday. “Together, we must stand as the bedrock of the rules-based international order, working for peace, security, prosperity, freedom, human rights and gender equality.”
Brussels has no intention of slackening off as it seeks to prove the EU is able to stand on its own feet in an era of multi-power rivalries, given the bitter divisions that remain in US society.
Mr Michel acknowledged in his speech that “America seems to have changed” — as have perceptions of the country in Europe.
“Likewise, the way the United States views the European Union may also have to change,” he said. “The EU chooses its course and does not wait for permission to take its own decisions.”
Ms von der Leyen hailed the chance to “breathe new life into our cherished alliance” but also served notice of potential clashes with the US on the particular topic of big tech regulation.
“We want it laid down clearly that internet companies take responsibility for the content they disseminate,” she said.
She added that moves to limit free expression, such as Twitter’s block on Mr Trump’s account after the Capitol storming, “should be based on decisions of politicians and parliaments and not of Silicon Valley managers”.
The commission chief proposed a joint trade and technology council to “create a digital economy rule book that is valid worldwide”, covering areas including data protection, privacy and the security of technical infrastructure.
“The path we have taken in Europe can be an example for approaches at international level,” she said.
Mr Trump on Tuesday insisted his movement was “only just beginning” as he prepared for the handover of power to Mr Biden — a successor he could not bring himself to name in a farewell address from the White House.
Mr Trump will be the first president in more than 150 years to refuse to attend his successor’s inauguration.