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Even if Biden wins, European leaders warn rebuilding relationships will take time

November 7, 2020, 12:39 AM UTC

When France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went on air on one of the country’s biggest morning radio shows on Thursday, most listeners expected him to be celebrating a possible new U.S. President, after years of European Union leaders colliding with President Donald Trump.

But Le Drian instead had a more urgent warning for his countrymen: The old relationship with the U.S., he told them, was over, no matter whether Trump or Joe Biden won the election.

“We will not return to the status quo ante, to the good old days of the trans-Atlantic relationship,” Le Drian, a veteran French politician, told Europe1 Radio. “The world has moved on after these four years.” 

After days of Europeans watching the election drama play out, Le Drian’s words were a jolt, bringing a sense that Trump’s presidency has left a scar that is unlikely to heal easily.

Clearly, a Biden presidency is a drastic relief for European officials who have struggled to maintain good relations with the U.S. over the past four years—a period that most describe as being an unprecedented low time.

For one thing, Biden already has an extensive network of contacts across Europe, from his eight years in President Barack Obama’s White House. 

“Everybody knows him,” François Heisbourg, a defense analyst and advisor to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, told Fortune on Friday night. Heisbourg twice met Biden during his visits to Europe while he was Obama’s vice president. “The good news is that we will be able to have an adult relationship again with people speaking with each other, rather than past each other. Biden is not only an adult person, but a rather rational one.” 

The anticipation of Trump’s defeat has built all week across Europe. On Tuesday, the fat-type headline splashed across France’s left-leaning Liberation newspaper read, “End of the nightmare?” When Heisbourg was asked how Europeans regarded Trump’s seemingly imminent defeat, he said: “Good riddance—to put it in the shortest possible words.”

Yet, despite the delight in a likely Biden presidency, Heisbourg and others believe that Europe is unlikely to snap back to the previous close relationship it enjoyed with the U.S. up until 2016. 

Like Americans, many Europeans have sat glued to their televisions this week, watching the nonstop election coverage; only Europe’s soaring coronavirus caseload has competed for airtime. And while many have eagerly anticipated Biden’s victory, they have also watched closely, as Trump’s huge support across the U.S. held up.

That has led many to conclude that while Trump looks likely to leave, his ideas could well take hold again.

“You have to assume things can turn around in 2024,” Heisbourg says. “This Republican Party had four million more votes than last time with the most dysfunctional candidate you can imagine.”

European analysts say they are struck by the sight of two contrasting Americas, playing out on their screens: the free democracy they have long admired and a country that appears dangerously split.

“America is not just picking its President,” political commentator Dominique Moisi wrote in the Ouest-France newspaper on Tuesday. “It is choosing what it is: A proud democracy, capable of inspiring the world, or a country that has sunk into violence, with contempt for democratic legitimacy.” That, he wrote, could make the U.S. seem “an XXL-sized banana republic.”

European leaders grappled for years with the President’s policies, which many found erratic and hostile.

The friction reached crisis points on several occasions over Trump’s presidency, including when he withdrew the U.S. from the global Paris Agreement (a decision that took legal effect on Wednesday); when he pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, which Western countries and the U.N. had painstakingly negotiated over years; and when he announced he would pull U.S. funding from the World Health Organization amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For countries on Russia’s border, Trump’s views on Europe have seemed truly perilous. As Biden’s victory began to seem inevitable on Friday evening, Edgars Rinkēvičs, the foreign minister of the small Baltic country of Latvia, tweeted a joint statement with foreign ministers from neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, reminding the next U.S. administration that NATO was crucial to fending off military attacks in Europe, especially in the tiny frontline Baltic states. The U.S., they said, “is and will remain for us the closest ally.”

The statement came after years in which Trump complained that Washington was spending too much on defending European, threatening to pull the U.S. out of NATO, the bedrock of the West’s security for 70 years. “The European Union is a foe,” Trump told CBS News in 2018. “They have really taken advantage of us.”

Such talk has incensed Europe’s leaders, and in 2018, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly warned them that Europe could no longer trust the U.S.—a sentiment echoed on Thursday by French foreign minister Le Drian. “It is no longer such that the United States simply protects us,” Merkel said at the time. “Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That is the task of the future.”

Now that that future has arrived, Europe’s deep rethinking about the U.S. is clear. 

“Europe has emerged from its naivete,” French foreign minister Le Drian said in his interview Thursday. “It is beginning to assert itself as a power.” In the minds of many Europeans, that now appears the safest path.