President Joe Biden remarks on his economic agenda on April 19, 2023, in Accokeek, Maryland.
CNN  — 

When Joe Biden confirmed he will run for reelection this week, America’s European allies knew exactly what that meant for the future of the transatlantic relationship.

It’s no secret that as news broke that Biden won the presidency in 2020, leaders across the pond were relieved that a more conventional democratic leader would be in the White House.

But they also knew that Biden would not be able to undo all the damage done in Donald Trump’s four years.

Trump was a chaotic leader who repeatedly criticized America’s European allies. He threatened trade wars on everything from cheese to airplanes. He questioned the principles of the NATO alliance and sniped at the European Union, at one point saying that if he ran the UK he simply wouldn’t pay the £50 billion ($62 billion) Brexit bill that Britain legally owed the EU.

There are two main reasons why Europeans haven’t entirely moved on from the Trump years. First, if Trump could happen once, there is no reason he or someone in his mold won’t happen again. Second, Biden, Europeans believe, has continued much of Trump’s foreign policy of protectionism on trade and maximum pressure on China.

These two realities will influence the European approach to America and its place in the world order for at least the next decade.

When you speak to European diplomats and officials, the word “trust” comes up often. Trust not just in the intentions of the US as an ally, but trust in American democracy.

“We look at what happened on January 6 and wonder if we can trust something similar or worse won’t happen again, collapsing the political system with it. We look at the divisions in the country and wonder if we can trust that the US won’t double down on its protectionist, America-first agenda,” a senior European diplomat told CNN. “We just cannot afford to be overly reliant on an ally that we cannot trust will be stable,” they added.

This lack of trust and general suspicion of America has in part driven what is referred to in Europe as the strategic autonomy agenda – essentially an attempt for the EU to have an independent foreign policy that makes it less dependent on the US. A key part of that agenda is Europe maintaining close economic ties with China that would be unacceptable to both major American parties these days.

French President Emmanuel Macron explained his vision for strategic autonomy in somewhat clunky terms recently when he told Politico that Europe must not become “just America’s followers” on China. The comment was controversial because it was said in response to a question about what Europe would do if China invaded Taiwan. But broadly speaking, all 27 EU member states support the strategic autonomy agenda, albeit with varying degrees of hawkishness on China thrown in for good measure.

The truth is that European concerns over modern America have made even some of the biggest China-skeptics in the EU accept that Europe must now take a different approach to Beijing from Washington.

That doesn’t mean that all EU nations are happy about this new reality. Some, especially in the east of the bloc, fear that the lure of Chinese markets and cheap labor blinds their peers to the risk of being too economically reliant on China.

“We need to remove risk from the relationship with China, which we didn’t with Russia. I am worried we are underestimating the risk of China,” says an Eastern Europe diplomat. “The Russophiles said that economic cooperation would protect us, but it didn’t stop them cutting our gas supply.”

But even the biggest hawks now talk about removing risk from their ties to China, rather than cutting ties altogether, and all over the bloc officials draw a direct line back to the changes in the EU-US relationship that occurred under Trump, some of which they believe are now impossible to reverse.

On the US side, officials are optimistic that Europe will one day come to its senses and adopt something closer to the American position on China, which is considerably more hostile on trade and development of technologies, is deeply critical of China’s human rights record and its activity in the South China Sea.

“America is often the canary in the coal mine. We are ringing a bell on China, but it might take the Europeans a little longer to hear it,” a US government official told CNN. “Europe has lots of ties to China, but it also learned recently how fast a partner can become an adversary. The real test of how much Europe wants to diverge will happen if China’s aggression to Taiwan increases.”

A second US official told CNN that the chief lesson of the Trump period for allies was to understand that maintaining a “durable” relationship with whoever happens to be in the White House is important and that now is not a good time to “get complacent” and lose sight of “the indispensability of the US as a European power.”

Back in Europe, the question of indispensability is framed slightly differently. “The US is an unavoidable partner, even if it is a worrying partner,” the senior European diplomat told CNN.

And while some believe that the US, with all its internal political divides, has made it hard for Europeans to take DC at its word, they say there are things Biden – or whoever follows him – can do to help the relationship.

“It would help if some token efforts were made to have a closer relationship on things like economics and cybersecurity,” a European official says. “The EU-US trade and technology council for example is a good forum, but it’s too heavily focussed on technology for now. And they could have reached out to us far sooner on the Inflation Reduction Act and asked how it might negatively impact our economies.”

Behind closed doors, there is no ambiguity: European officials will be much happier if Biden wins a second term than either Ron DeSantis or Trump being the next US president.

However, Biden’s presidency so far has not set the scene for some great reconciliation. Europe is mostly committed to finding its own way in the world.

In some respects, that was inevitable and essential. But it’s undeniable that the shadow of the Trump presidency and Biden’s continuation of policy that looks inwards rather than out has left Europe more determined than ever to find its own place in the world, rather than follow others. And right now, that means a continued break from America on the biggest foreign policy issue outside of Ukraine for the past decade: How to deal with China.