US president Joe Biden was a special guest at a gathering of the leaders of the EU on Thursday in a sign of a fresh start in the transatlantic alliance.
It is a rare occasion for a US president to address a European Council gathering: the last time was an appearance by George Bush in 2001, while Barack Obama attended an EU-US summit with all member states present in April 2009.
In the summit, which was switched to a virtual format last week due to a surge in Covid-19 cases across the continent, Mr Biden was expected to express his interest in strengthening transatlantic ties to pursue areas of common interest.
Washington and Brussels have both declared their intentions to relaunch the alliance after a difficult few years under Mr Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who engaged in a trade war with the EU, equivocated on his commitment to Nato and described the bloc as a “foe”.
Earlier this month the two sides declared they would both suspend tariffs they had imposed in a long-running row over subsidies to aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing in what the European Commission’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis described as a “reset”.
The commission has published proposals to co-operate on climate change, reform the World Trade Organisation, and uphold democracy and human rights.
However, Mr Biden was not expected to go into detail on the issue of the moment: Covid-19 vaccines.
Talks have been ongoing between Brussels and Washington aimed at persuading the administration to allow the export of vaccines and component ingredients. While AstraZeneca deliveries to the EU have fallen short, the US is sitting on a stockpile and has not yet approved the jab for use.
The US was among the destinations for the 77 million doses that have been exported from the EU, and Washington aims to make every adult eligible for vaccination by May 1st.
Concerns about whether the prioritisation of US citizens for vaccines could affect deliveries of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has a partly transatlantic supply chain, are part of the context of new proposals to harden export controls by the European Commission. Johnson & Johnson is down to deliver 55 million doses to the EU by June.
The measures would allow for vaccine export permits to be refused to certain countries – including Britain and the US – on the grounds that they have a higher vaccination rate or are not exporting doses to the EU in turn.
For some the plan is aggressive and risks disrupting international supply chains to the detriment of all.
Yet others see the issue as an argument for “strategic autonomy”, a foreign policy mantra that the EU should be more assertive and should not be made vulnerable by reliance on others in key areas, whether in vital supply chains or defence.
The idea is in vogue once more because while leaders across Europe are glad to have a new US administration that is committed to the transatlantic relationship, they remember that Washington turned away from the alliance and could do so again.