The governments of Visegrad Group (V4) countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – appeared divided on the victory of Democratic candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden in the 2020 US presidential election. While some seemed to regret the departure of President Donald Trump, others saw it as the opportune end of a US foreign policy that had become too erratic and unpredictable.
Whichever side of the aisle you might find yourself on, the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House should not lead to any radical change in the American position with regard to the Visegrad Group countries, and more generally in Washington’s approach to transatlantic ties with the EU. The new US administration will probably act within the scope of a certain strategic continuity, marked by a real albeit limited interest in the so-called “Old Continent”.
The Visegrad Group and the Trump / Biden dilemma
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made no secret of his desire to see Donald Trump re-elected as President of the United States. Last September, in the columns of the national daily Magyar Nemzet, the Hungarian Premier warned against the so-called “moral imperialism” of Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, affirming his support for Trump in the presidential campaign. The latter has proved to be a major ally for the illiberal government of Prime Minister Orban over the past four years, with the two men evidently in agreement on a number of issues: a tough immigration policy, a traditional vision of family and society and a hostility towards “mainstream media”.
In Poland, the Law and Justice (PIS) party – in power since 2015 – is also widely known for its cordial relationship with the Trump Administration. In June 2020, Polish President Andrzej Duda – supported by PiS – was the first head of state to be received at the White House after COVID-19 restrictions were relaxed.
This meeting took place just four days before the first round of the Polish presidential election, allowing Donald Trump to express his support for Duda, then candidate for his own re-election in a tight race with pro-European, liberal Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaskowski. The high-profile meeting between Trump and Duda was evidently a nicely orchestrated coup to testify of the depth of relations between the PiS leadership and the American ally, at a time when Warsaw was becoming increasingly isolated on the European stage due to accusations of democratic backsliding and growing Euroscepticism.
The announcement of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US election was much better received by the other two V4 members. The Czech Republic and Slovakia generally maintain good relations with their Polish and Hungarian neighbours while adopting a more conciliatory attitude towards Brussels and other European partners. Officials in Prague and Bratislava were much more favourable to a Biden victory than their Visegrad allies. Donald Trump’s often unpredictable policy was far from reassuring for both countries, particularly with regard to relations with Russia, with whom relations have considerably deteriorated in recent years amid growing allegations of Russian espionage activities, and after several diplomatic quarrels, most notably last year’s tensions surrounding the Boris Nemtsov square in Prague.
Both countries had also been put off by a number of decisions taken by President Trump during his term, including the introduction of taxes on European products as part of a trade standoff with the EU. This decision had a significant impact on the economies of both countries, heavily dependent on exports. To add fuel to the fire, Trump frequently threatened to impose heavy taxes on the European car industry, a grave cause for alarm for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both known for being among the world leaders in car production per capita, and heavily dependent on the US market. Studies have pointed out that Slovakia would have been the EU country most severely affected by increased taxes on car imports by the US.
Biden presidency: What consequences for Europe?
The arrival of Joe Biden at the White House does not herald major upheavals in the main pillars of American foreign policy in Europe. In the eyes of American strategists, Europe has long stopped being of major interest, as evidenced by the famous “pivot to Asia” initiated by former President Barack Obama as early as 2011 – a strategic turnaround meant to pave the way for a reorientation of Washington’s diplomatic efforts towards Asia, to the detriment of Europe. It would be unrealistic to expect things to change radically with Obama’s former vice-president.
The appointment of Anthony Blinken – a reputed Francophile with strong personal and professional ties to Poland and Hungary – at the head of American diplomacy seems, however, to be a step in the right direction towards reinforcing transatlantic ties. And while American foreign policy should be more predictable than in the past four years, Europeans will still face numerous challenges.
The EU appears forced to reinvent its relations with the US and assert itself as a major player on the international stage in order to face the challenges imposed by other world powers and avoid being marginalized. This could be done by strengthening European defence capabilities, an issue that continues to divide Europeans, as evidenced by the recent clash between German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and French President Emmanuel Macron.
In an op-ed published in Politico, the German minister said that the United States was best placed to protect Europeans and that “the illusions of European strategic autonomy must stop”. A few days later, Emmanuel Macron begged to disagree in an interview with Le Grand Continent. There can be no doubt that the EU’s ability to take charge of its own defence and security is a sensitive subject for member states, which on the whole remain attached to a defence that is (at least) shared with the United States.
What remains to be decided is the degree of participation of Washington in future transatlantic relations, as the Biden administration should undoubtedly favour the German position – a country with whom bilateral relations were particularly tense during Trump’s term. Evidently, the establishment of a common and fully sovereign European defence is unthinkable as of today, with the vast majority of EU member states following Berlin’s cautious stance and preferring to rely on NATO.
Simultaneously, French President Macron’s statements on the need to develop a continental strategic autonomy are often seen as bold and adventurous, while his attempts to forge closer ties with Russia are perceived as ambiguous, at best. The new US administration is therefore taking office amid favourable conditions to maintain a close strategic cooperation with the EU.
In addition to the US military presence, which should remain more or less the same in numbers, the next few years should also see the strengthening of ongoing strategic projects like the Three Seas Initiative. Contrary to Obama during his first term, the Biden administration does not seem particularly keen to improve relations with Russia, while Washington should keep a rather tough position on China. On paper at least, the overall geopolitical mood appears favourable for Visegrad Group countries, known for being devout “Atlantists”.
Maintaining the importance of transatlantic ties for the Visegrad countries
The Visegrad Group’s position on transatlantic relations is clear: NATO must remain the first and essential pillar of European security. Of the four Central European countries, Hungary was undoubtedly the most in favour of strengthening EU defence capabilities alongside NATO.
Without being fundamentally opposed to the idea, Poland is much more critical of this agenda. As a deeply Atlanticist country, Poland does not want the EU to compete with or jeopardize NATO’s predominance in that area, and the Polish position is unlikely to change in the short or medium term.
First of all, Warsaw sees Russia, with whom it shares a border through the Kaliningrad enclave, as one of its greatest threats – a perception fuelled by historically dramatic relations and reinforced by Moscow’s military interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. Secondly, Poles are convinced the United States is the only country able to protect them from such a threat, considering Germany is not powerful enough from a military standpoint, and that the British and French allies have failed to live up to their promises in the past.
However, candidate Joe Biden has been a vocal critic of illiberal tendencies in Visegrad Group members Hungary and Poland, even going so far as to describe them as “totalitarian regimes” alongside Belarus. The new US administration probably marks the end of Washington’s passive acceptance of such controversial measures and policies implemented in Budapest and Warsaw. Many in both capitals are, for that very reason, already regretting Donald Trump’s departure.
Because of its strategic importance on NATO and Europe’s eastern flank, Poland might not be as overtly targeted, unless democratic backsliding significantly worsens. Hungary, on the other part, is of much lower strategic importance, and has developed what Washington sees as problematic relations with Russia and China. The Biden presidency is therefore more likely to use Hungary, rather than Poland, to set an example and express its commitment to promoting democratic values. A recent article by Daniel Fried – a diplomatic figure close to the new administration – appears to lend weight to that argument.
The United States will continue to play an important role in Europe, particularly on defence and security matters. But while Joe Biden’s election appears to herald healthier transatlantic relations, they’re bound to remain conflict-ridden in several areas, including regarding the EU’s relations with China and EU-US trade relations. Inevitably, EU member states – Visegrad countries included – will need to adapt their vision and redefine the terms and conditions of transatlantic relations if they wish to preserve their national interests – the key challenge for the V4 will be to ensure that security guarantees are safeguarded. In Central Europe much more than elsewhere in the EU, this issue takes precedence over any other.
This article was written by Mathilde Didier and originally published in French by Euro Créative, an official partner of Kafkadesk.