PLYMOUTH, ENGLAND — In his first overseas trip as president, Joe Biden is working to regain the trust of skeptical European allies after relations between the U.S. and western European countries frayed under the Trump administration. His reception, thus far, has largely been one of cautious relief.
“I’m glad he’s come,” Carol Mayfield, a pub manager in the seaside city of Plymouth in southwest England, said of Biden. “We’ll have to see what he wants, won’t we?”
Many western European leaders and officials are thinking the same.
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“Most Europeans are relieved about the new tone from Washington,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe who lives in Germany and is currently a member of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Center for European Policy Analysis. “But Biden will have to continue to work to remove all doubt about U.S. commitment in Europe” after four years of President Donald Trump’s confrontational approach to Europe, he added, which included Trump insulting the European Union over trade disputes and then storming out of the 2018 Group of Seven meeting in Canada.
Robin Niblett, director of the London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House, said western European leaders are nervous. “They want Biden to succeed but they’re worried about what he might ask for to appear strong at home,” Niblett said.
Biden’s eight-day, three-country tour includes the G7 meeting in the United Kingdom, NATO and EU summits in Brussels and a one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.
Biden, who has decades-long relationships with European officials from his days as a U.S. senator on the Foreign Affairs Committee, has brought a seasoned team of his own to Europe, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan who are not shy about pressing allies on climate, trade and other key issues.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his allies are also concerned about Biden and U.S. officials weighing in on the Brexit aftermath in Northern Ireland. The Biden administration has warned the U.K. not to let post-Brexit trade disputes with the EU unleash violence in Northern Ireland, which was largely quelled by a 1998 peace deal known as The Good Friday Agreement.
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“President Biden has been crystal clear about his rock-solid belief in the Good Friday Agreement as the foundation for peaceful co-existence in Northern Ireland,” Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday. “Any steps that imperil it or undermine it would not be welcomed by the United States.”
During a brief photo op on Thursday, Johnson welcomed Biden, saying “everyone is absolutely thrilled to see you.” Biden responded that he was “thrilled” to be in the country, and then made a quip about both of them marrying “above our station.”
“I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or indeed anything else,” the newlywed Johnson replied, chuckling.
While they exchanged pleasantries, Biden and Johnson ignored a reporter’s shouted question about Northern Ireland.
Biden did not mention Northern Ireland in a solo press conference following his 90-minute meeting with Johnson. He said the two countries had agreed to “renew” their commitment to the Atlantic Charter, a declaration signed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941, establishing a vision for the world post-World War II.
In the same press conference, Biden also announced the U.S. would purchase and donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to lower-income countries in order to “supercharge” the global fight against the pandemic. The U.K. is expected to announce a similar purchase of 100 million vaccine doses in the coming days, according to a senior White House official.
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Many European countries still have strict travel bans and quarantines in place, as new virus variants have led to outbreaks over the past few months. Residents in the United Kingdom are only just beginning to reemerge from a series of lockdowns, though the country’s vaccination program has ramped up after shifting focus to prioritize the first shot. More than 75 percent of the U.K.’s adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
In the seaside city of Plymouth, pubs and other businesses are still not at full capacity, and masks are required indoors. British officials say Johnson may need to delay upcoming plans to further ease restrictions, amid a new spike in cases.
But Biden’s meetings with European officials are being largely overshadowed by his final event– the one-on-one meeting with Putin.
“There is some concern that Biden is going down the same path as President [Barack] Obama on Russia, that somehow you can reason with the Kremlin,” Hodges said. “That makes some Europeans nervous.”
Biden, addressing U.S. troops upon his arrival in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, said he’s meeting with Putin to “let him know what I want him to know.” The comment drew cheers from the assembled crowd.
But people close to Biden argue his meeting with Putin is not about specific deliverables.
“It’s an opportunity for the president to really define his legacy as it relates to the Russian-American relationship,” a longtime Biden ally said, discussing the matter on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “The most important part is that he shows an enormous contrast to Trump and that’s what people are going to take away from this — that there’s a new sheriff in town.”