Joe Biden, honorary European Union leader for a day

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The 28th head of state and government in the European Council video summit on Thursday was sitting with a funny star-spangled red, white and blue flag behind him.

U.S. President Joe Biden joined the EU leaders’ meeting at the invitation of Council President Charles Michel and, at least from the screenshots that were made public, there were a whole lot of real smiles around the virtual conference table.

The happy images were a far cry — more like a far giggle — from the days when European leaders found themselves glaring across meeting rooms at former U.S. President Donald Trump, and bracing for some unpredictable outburst or tirade from him at events like the G7, G20 or NATO summits.

Trump, who once said the EU was created to take advantage of the U.S., was never invited to join EU leaders at one of their own gatherings. For Biden, however, they rolled out the virtual red carpet.

“For the first time in 11 years we welcomed the president of the United States,” Michel said at a news conference after the summit, referencing ex-U.S. leader Barack Obama. “It was the opportunity for the president of the United States to express his vision about the future cooperation between the EU and the United States, and it was also the opportunity for us the European Union to express our very strong commitment for this fundamental transatlantic alliance.”

One EU diplomat said Michel sang Biden’s praises as he introduced him on the videoconference. Biden, in turn, “was very colloquial, very empathetic, saying ‘we are in this together,’” the diplomat said. “He made a point to acknowledge ‘Angela’ several times, saying, ‘we are the veterans here,’” a reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel, for her part, said that there was much the Europeans hoped to work on with their new-old friend. “There are a large number of commonalities that we want to cultivate and also want to cultivate more again,” she said. “Whether that’s cooperation on climate, whether that’s setting aside trade disputes … whether that’s the relationship with China, with Russia or with Turkey.”

Asked if close ties with the U.S. could threaten German economic interests in China, Merkel stressed her wish that the EU should be perceived as an independent, sovereign player that forms its own China policy. “It’s not just about economic interests, but also about living up to what we also call European sovereignty,” she said. “That means that we have a common foundation of values with the United States of America, of course, that is completely unquestioned and clear, but we also have our own interests on the other side.”

Michel said that he hoped to see the EU partner with Washington on fighting climate change and digital issues, but that first and foremost it should be a partnership in defense of democracy.

“The European Union is a project focused on peace and prosperity and it’s also based on the values of the dignity of every human being, democracy and the rule of law,” Michel said.

“What we are seeing is these values of democracy and the rule of law are under threat again,” he added. “More than ever now, the United States and the European Union have a responsibility for the generations to come, because we know that the decisions that we can take together, on subjects such as security, democracy and stability will have an impact for years to come, for our children and our grandchildren.”

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