The US Democratic Primaries: Where do the candidates stand on EU-US relations?

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. – Gage Skidmore:

It is no news that the relationship between the EU and the US went through a rocky three years, following Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Since then, top EU policymakers have hardly concealed their frustration with Trump’s muscular approach to international relations and trade. Is 2020 going to be a pivotal year in EU-US relations? While a victory of Trump in the upcoming Presidential elections should not be discounted (incumbency plays a key role in US politics), it is also important to start preparing for the alternative scenario of a victory of the nominee from the Democratic opposition.

However, even if many of the Democratic candidates promise a clean break with Trump’s confrontational approach, do not expect all policy disagreements between the two continental powers to fade away easily. For example, the currently leading candidate to become the Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders, shares some of Trump’s views on trade policy and NATO relations. In this report, we highlight some of the differences in the policy views of the Democratic candidates and how these could affect EU-US relations in the future.

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Who is leading the race?

As of now, there are five candidates with plausible paths to the Democratic nomination: Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. The Iowa and New Hampshire races helped little to dispel the uncertainty over the outcome of the contest. While he has been the frontrunner to win the race for several months, former Vice President Joe Biden performed poorly in the nation’s first two contests, garnering only 6 delegates overall. This has led to a race among moderate Democrats, mainly Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, to win over voters slipping out of Biden’s camp. Conversely, the most prominent candidate from the left-wing side is Bernie Sanders, who is rather well known outside the United States as the challenger of Hillary Clinton in 2016.


Democratic victory would decrease the ‘climate divide’ between Washington and Brussels


Since Trump’s election in 2016, the US’s stance on environmental issues has changed dramatically. In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would be leaving the Paris Climate Agreement in order to support industries such as fossil fuels and coal. Such developments could hardly be further apart from the policy developments in the EU, where climate action has become the main landmark policy of the new European Commission headed by von der Leyen (European Green Deal). If the current course is maintained by the US, such divergence paves the way for further escalation in the difficult trade relations between the two partners, as the proposals for a EU carbon border tax are likely to trigger retaliation from Washington. Furthermore, a majority of MEPs support the inclusion of mandatory clauses related to the compliance with the Paris Agreement goals in all EU trade agreements with third countries, which would arguably make the approval of any new trade deal with the US rather difficult.

However, such dispute is likely to de-escalate in case Trump is not re-elected in November, as many of the Democratic candidates have proposed sweeping environmental plans, some going even further than the Paris Agreements dictate. Importantly, all of the major Democratic candidates support increasing the US’s role in climate action.

On climate, the two most progressive candidates are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both politicians support a direct regulatory approach to carbon emissions, a controversial stance in US politics but which has become more mainstream in the European Union. Additionally, both signed on to the Green New Deal (not to be confused with the European Green Deal), a sweeping proposal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. Overall, in a Sanders or Warren presidency, Europe could expect the US to take a more active role in the fight against climate change. However, their critical positions on shale gas (both candidates support banning fracking – a disputed oil drilling technique) could affect the current efforts to decrease EU dependency on Russian energy by increasing US exports of fuels to the European continent. Such developments would be ill-received in Poland and the Baltic States, which are among the biggest supporters (for obvious geopolitical reasons) of increasing imports of LNG from the US.

On the moderate end are Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Michael Bloomberg. These candidates also support the Green New Deal’s framework but have slightly more moderate approaches to climate action. Their plans include the same goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 (as outlined under Paris), which is notably 20 years later than the goal in the Sanders and Warren plan. As part of their initiatives, they want to invest more in renewable energy and climate research, which allows for the market to innovate solutions on environmental issues. This more market-oriented approach to climate change could be of benefit to firms who produce within the US but may come up short in regard to environmental action. Even so, neither Buttigieg, Bloomberg, nor Biden supports directly regulating businesses to lower carbon emissions. Additionally, none of these candidates support banning fracking and prefer a regulatory approach to the drilling method.

Even so, a more moderate approach to environmental action may be necessary in order for any Democratic president to pass legislation through the Congress. As of now, it seems unlikely the Democrats gain control of the Senate, meaning they will have to work with Republicans even if they win the White House this November.

Trade tension likely to continue in case of a victory of progressive candidates

Significantly, the Trump administration has taken a rather muscular approach to US-EU trade relations. Touting the US trade deficit as unfair, Trump has threatened tariffs against many essential European industries, ranging from agriculture to automobiles. Furthermore, Trump’s trade dispute with China also had an impact on the European economy, as the consequent economic slowdown took a significant toll on the German economy. Is this going to change in case Trump loses in November? Again, trade is an issue that divides many of the Democratic candidates, with the progressive wing being closer to a protectionist approach and moderates supporting free trade.

The moderates, Biden, Bloomberg, and Buttigieg, again come out on the same side, largely supporting free trade. All of these candidates supported the USMCA free trade agreement, proposed in 2018. Additionally, these candidates are all against any sort of trade war with the European Union (a sigh of relief for French wine producers). Notably, Joe Biden, as Vice President under Barack Obama, spoke in support of the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) free trade agreement as late as 2016. While Buttigieg and Bloomberg have not commented on the TTIP, their general support of free trade agreements (such as USMCA and TPP) indicates at a minimum a willingness to de-escalate the current trade disputes. Overall, under any of these administrations, the US-European trade relationship would likely normalize to what it was before Trump took office, even though significant challenges are set to remain regardless, as indicated by the difficult TTIP talks that took place before the elections of Trump.

On the other hand, Sanders and Warren support more protectionist trade policies, somewhat more in line with the Trump administration. While both remain critical of Donald Trump’s approach to trade, Sanders and Warren remain critical of free trade overall. Importantly, Elizabeth Warren seems slightly more willing to engage in free trade agreements as she voted for USMCA along with the majority of her Democratic colleagues. This could mean a greater willingness to cooperate with Europe on a trade relationship that benefits both sides. Even so, Warren remains against the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), putting her at odds with the moderate Democratic contenders. Bernie Sanders, however, was one of ten Senators to vote against USMCA and has been perhaps the most vocal opponent of free trade in Democratic politics. Sanders cites concerns over factory job losses and unfair international practices in his arguments against free trade, similar to the rhetoric currently coming from President Trump. Importantly, the majority of his complaints seem geared towards nations such as Mexico and China; however, it should be noted that the same was true with Trump up to the 2016 election. Under either a Sanders or Warren administration, it is possible that Europe faces similar pressure as now on trade negotiations.

Democrats are divided on foreign policy engagements, raising challenges for the EU

Perhaps one of the most notable byproducts of the Trump administration has been his new approach to foreign policy, occasionally to the chagrin of European leaders. As promised, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal, leading Iran to fall out of compliance with the agreement. This was met with frustration by the leaders of the EU biggest countries (in particular France), but also by the EU institutions, as the Nuclear Deal with Iran was widely seen as the major foreign policy achievement by the former EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini. Moreover, Trump raised eyebrows for questioning the importance of NATO while demanding that Europeans spend more on their defense. Overall, the new American policy has left some Europeans worried about the fate of the trans-Atlantic military alliance and a potential worsening of the conflicts in the Middle East. How could this change under a new Democratic administration?

While all Democratic candidates support NATO and have been strong critics on Trump’s rhetoric regarding the alliance, there remain some key differences in the scope of the support among Democrats. Sanders, for example, is outspoken on his desire to get European countries to meet the 2% GDP requirement on defense spending. Other Democrats have not commented on European defense spending, which might indicate a softer approach. Additionally, all of the Democratic candidates support the goals of the Iran Nuclear Deal and would likely rejoin if Iran came back into compliance with the deal. Of the candidates, Warren is the most critical of the Iran Deal, suggesting it does not go far enough. Even so, there is widespread agreement among the Democratic candidates (including Warren) that any deal with Iran is better than no deal.

Most of the candidates also support the scaling back of troops in the Middle East, although to significantly different extents. The progressives, Sanders and Warren, are advocating for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and a limited role in Iraq and Syria. While this position is generally supported among left leaning Democrats in the US, it could potentially shift the burden of filling the power vacuum in the region to European forces. However, despite the ambitions of a ‘geopolitical European Commission’, the EU struggled to provide a strong response to the events taking place in its immediate neighbourhood, in particular with regards to Libya and Syria, where geopolitical players like Turkey and Russia managed to capitalise on the vacuum of power in the region. Such hesitant responses by the EU are mainly due to its complex decision-making process that aims at generating consensus over such decisions.

Conversely, while both Buttigieg and Biden support moderate troop withdrawals in the region, they argue that some US presence is needed. Specifically, this means limiting the US presence in Afghanistan to special forces but remaining active in the region elsewhere. This Middle East policy is the most similar to that of President Obama’s and would not deviate much from President Trump’s current Middle East policy, despite the somewhat isolationist rhetoric coming from the current administration. Interestingly, Michael Bloomberg (a former Republican) believes that the US should stay fully engaged in the region and has been intensely critical of Trump’s attempted withdrawal of some troops. In some instances, Bloomberg has indicated a willingness to increase the US presence in Iraq and Syria in order to put pressure on the Assad regime. Bloomberg has been criticized for his slightly hawkish foreign policy views, but he maintains that a strong US foreign presence is necessary to ensuring stability in the Middle East.

While it is in no way a guarantee that any of these candidates beat President Trump in the November elections, it is important to understand how their individual policies have the potential to shape the US-EU relationship. For example, Bernie Sanders, who is perhaps the most likely candidate to win at this given time, shares some policy positions with Trump when it comes to trade and foreign military presence. Even still, Europeans must prepare for the significant changes that would undoubtedly occur if a new US administration takes over next year. Stay tuned for the Nevada and South Carolina races on the 22nd and 29th of February respectively and Super Tuesday on March 3rd, where ⅓ of American Democrats head to the ballot box.