World Insights: Biden attempts to repair transatlantic relations as EU leaders struggle to control COVID-19 resurgence

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by Xinhua writers Li Jizhi, Ren Ke

BRUSSELS, March 26 (Xinhua) — U.S. President Joe Biden resumed a disrupted tradition on Thursday night to join his counterparts in the European Union (EU) for policy alignment, as the latter met online to discuss a number of key issues, ranging from combating the COVID-19 pandemic, engaging with Turkey to the economic recovery and the role of the euro.

While Biden’s appearance was generally welcomed by the heads of state or government who hailed that “America is back,” his attempt to revamp the transatlantic relationship will inevitably face uncertainties, especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the two sides must overcome differences before they can smoothly work together.

NEW CHAPTER OR CLOCK BACK

Appearing in a video conference with the European leaders at the invitation of European Council President Charles Michel, Biden turned out to be the first U.S. president to show up at an EU summit in 11 years. His predecessor Donald Trump failed to attend any EU meeting, while Barack Obama and George W. Bush both joined their EU counterparts on such occasions.

“It was an opportunity for the president of the United States to express his vision about the future cooperation between the EU and the U.S., and it was also an opportunity for us, the EU, to express our strong commitment to this fundamental transatlantic alliance,” said Michel at a press conference following the meeting.

During the virtual meeting, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to revitalizing transatlantic relations and called for close cooperation on common challenges, including combating COVID-19, tackling the threat of climate change and deepening economic ties, among other issues, according to a White House statement.

“More than ever now, the United States and the European Union have a responsibility for the generations to come as we know the decisions we can take together on subjects such as security, democracy, stability will have an impact for years to come,” said Michel.

But the expectation for a rapid revitalization of the transatlantic partnership may have been dampened as Merkel insisted that the EU should learn to rely on its own. “This is about living what we call ‘European sovereignty,'” she told a press briefing after Thursday’s summit, referring to China policies of Europe and the United States.

She said she has been working hard to contribute to a common policy of the EU on China. “We have a lot in common with the U.S., but not identical. This is for sure,” she added.

Finnish geopolitical analyst Markku Siira is among a number of observers who are skeptical about the U.S. true intentions. “When the United States say the democratic values are back on the agenda, they basically mean that Washington wants to turn back the clock to the 1990s, when they had this uni-polar position in global affairs,” he told Xinhua on Friday.

“As Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said, the EU and the U.S. don’t agree on everything, especially on China policy, I think this is the fundamental difference,” said Siira. He said the EU would like to have more say in the world affairs, and set itself as an independent pole of influence, but it remains to be seen whether it will succeed.

Biden made his appearance after his State Secretary Antony Blinken wrapped up a three-day visit to Brussels on Thursday, in which he hoped to open a new chapter of transatlantic relations after four years of tensions under the Trump administration.

Despite a pledge to revitalize bilateral ties, the two sides failed to resolve some major and ongoing disputes, such as the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that aims to transport natural gas directly from Russia to Germany.

VARIANTS SPREAD VS VACCINE ROLL-OUT

Racing against time for more vaccines to contain the new COVID-19 variants remains top priority, both for the United States and for the EU.

“We were able to identify subjects that we will be focusing on together, of course COVID-19 is one of them and the need to guarantee vaccines and the supply chains as well,” Michel said when explaining the transatlantic agenda at the virtual press conference late on Thursday.

In comparison to the United States and Britain, the European continent has suffered a slower-than-expected progress in the vaccination roll-out, mainly because of the limitations of the pharmaceutical companies’ production capacity and supply chains.

But European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also blamed some companies’ failure to honor their commitments for the vaccine shortage, and boasted that the EU is the biggest exporter of COVID-19 vaccines with 77 million doses sold to the rest of the world since Dec. 1, 2020.

She said on Thursday the 27 EU member states have received some 88 million doses of the vaccines and 62 million have been administered. Among those vaccinated, only 18.2 million, or around 4 percent of the EU population had fully received two jabs.

“We could have been much faster if all pharmaceutical companies had fulfilled their contracts,” she said, with a clear reference to AstraZeneca. She warned that the Anglo-Swedish firm would have to “catch up” before it is allowed to export doses outside of the bloc.

In the first quarter of 2021, AstraZeneca was supposed to deliver 90 million doses to the EU countries. Now the projection is that AstraZeneca will deliver just 30 million doses by the end of the first quarter. Despite the delays in vaccine deliveries, von der Leyen said the EU is still confident of having 70 percent of its adult population vaccinated by the end of summer.

The United States has a better vaccination result, with 30 percent of the population having received at least one shot. But the superpower is often criticized for hoarding up COVID-19 medicines or vaccines for its own use. In February, von der Leyen said the United States and Britain had systems in place that effectively blocked the export of COVID-19 vaccines, according to Reuters.

At the summit on Thursday, the EU leaders agreed to increase the production of vaccines in Europe to improve the roll-out of vaccination programs across member states. “It’s absolutely vital, of course, that we keep on working to improve vaccine production in Europe, and improve our ability to distribute those to member states,” Michel told a press conference.

Von der Leyen said the variant first detected in Britain was now in “practically all EU countries” and was the cause of the increase in new cases. Enditem

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