The 2023 EU-U.S. Summit has projected transatlantic unity in the face of current geopolitical challenges yet failed to produce concrete progress on key bilateral issues. Even long-standing irritants around economic and trade relations could not be resolved.

EU Leaders in Washington

On October 20th, U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EU Council President Charles Michel, and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell for the latest EU-U.S. Summit in Washington.

The EU-U.S. summit has always been a seismograph for the state of transatlantic relations, which reached a historic low during the Trump administration. The last summit, which took place in Brussels in June 2021, marked the beginning of a renewed transatlantic partnership and set a common agenda for cooperation. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock even spoke of a “transatlantic moment” in a keynote speech on foreign policy in August 2022. Nevertheless, irritations and challenges have remained, particularly in trade, economic and security cooperation.

The 2023 summit, which mere weeks ago, seemed poised to resolve bilateral trade irritants with regard to steel and aluminum tariffs and establish a new agreement on critical minerals, took a different turn than initially anticipated. Although it emphasized transatlantic unity in the face of the escalating Israel-Hamas conflict, Russia’s war against Ukraine, and China’s global influence, the summit failed to produce concrete progress on key bilateral issues.

No Solutions to Bilateral Irritants (Yet)

Most reporting, stemming mainly from a leaked draft statement ahead of the summit, suggested that while discussions would center around aligning messaging on Israel, the war in Ukraine, and China, long-awaited agreements on bilateral trade would still feature.

Both sides had hoped to resolve the long-running dispute over steel and aluminum trade, which dates back to the Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on European imports in 2018. In October 2021, the EU and the U.S. announced that within two years, both parties would enter a Global Arrangement on Sustainable Steel and Aluminum. This agreement would not only provide a long-term solution to bilateral strains but also implement a global tariff zone targeting steel and aluminum imports from non-market economies – most notably from China.

Reporting leading up to the Summit indicated that the EU would be willing to join the U.S. in introducing a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum. Ultimately, however, no such agreement was concluded. Instead, both parties signaled that they “look forward to continuing to make progress on these important objectives in the next two months.”

Brussels and Washington had also strived to reach an agreement on critical minerals to ensure European companies could be granted exemptions in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which provides green technology subsidies to American companies. Similarly, no deal was struck during the summit, with both parties stating that progress on negotiations would be made “in the coming weeks.”

Although both Brussels and Washington appear close to concluding agreements by the end of 2023, the delayed rollout nonetheless complicates joint claims that the EU and U.S. “are more united than ever.”

A Message of Transatlantic Unity – but With Empty Promises?

The bilateral trade tensions understandably took a backseat to the current geopolitical challenges engulfing world politics. Washington and Brussels demonstrated transatlantic unity at the summit in the face of these global challenges, yet to what extent this rhetoric will translate into extended support is unclear.

Of the 3,885-word joint statement, 2,158 words, or just over 55%, were dedicated to geopolitics, specifically in a section titled “Toward a More Secure and Stable World.” On the growing Israel-Hamas conflict, Brussels and Washington delivered a predictable, balanced message of support to Israel. Both parties condemned Hamas’ brutal actions, in turn supporting Israel’s right “to defend itself […] in line with international law, including international humanitarian law.” The EU and U.S. also highlighted their concern for the “deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Gaza” and the potential for regional escalation.

Beyond Israel, the bulk of the joint statement was devoted to supporting Ukraine. The U.S. and EU reaffirmed their resolve in providing Ukraine with “political, financial, humanitarian, and military support.” But despite the Biden administration’s pledge, waning U.S. public support for increased aid to Ukraine, especially among Republicans, has gradually led to increased Republican pushback in Congress. This trend is likely to last throughout next year, and as a result, Europeans must be prepared for a scenario in which U.S. support diminishes.

Both powers also pledged to hold “third-country actors who materially support” Russia’s war effort to account. While that pledge is not directed at any specific countries, Russia’s growing ties with China are of particular concern in the context of this message. In the case that Chinese dual-use technology were to be used in the Russian war effort, how would the U.S. or EU respond?

With regard to China, the EU and the U.S. emphasized the need for cooperation with Beijing on global challenges such as the climate and biodiversity crisis, addressing vulnerable countries’ debt sustainability and financing needs, global health, and macroeconomic stability. However, both powers also called for a policy of “de-risking” and are striving to diversify their economic relations with China. As the joint statement reads: “We are not decoupling or turning inwards. At the same time, we recognize that economic resilience requires de-risking and diversifying.” It remains to be seen to what extent this general consensus can be translated into concrete economic policy measures. There are still differing views as to the scope and speed with which such measures should be implemented.

Seizing the Transatlantic Moment

Looking to next year, both the European Parliament and U.S. elections represent a serious threat to continued transatlantic cooperation. The inauguration of former President Donald Trump or a Republican candidate with a similar disposition toward Europe could threaten to undo the past three years of transatlantic rapprochement.

But despite these internal threats to transatlantic cooperation, the far-reaching external threats – the Israel-HAMAS conflict, Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the expansion of the BRICS+ alliance, and China’s vast global influence – make it clear that the United States and Europe must remain steadfast in their commitment to cooperation and coordination.

Against this backdrop, the EU and the U.S. should use the remaining time before next year’s elections to establish long-term cooperative measures and “transatlantic guardrails” – i.e., arrangements that will help to keep work on track and prevent relations from derailing in the event of changes in government on either side of the Atlantic. The window of opportunity for such measures is still open, but it is closing fast. Brussels and Washington should seize the transatlantic moment while it lasts.

About the authors

Peter Walkenhorst is Senior Project Manager in Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, where he works on transatlantic relations and European-Chinese relations. Previously, he was a member of the foundation’s Germany and Asia Program, responsible for projects on the systemic conflict with China and social cohesion in Asia.

Brandon Bohrn works as a project manager in the Europe’s Future program. His work centers around U.S.-German and transatlantic relations. Previously, he worked on the transatlantic team at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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