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Vulcan Insight | “This is a time of testing” – The United States’ 46th President, Ireland & Europe

Undoubtedly, the most pressing issue on President Joseph R. Biden’s agenda is the COVID-19 pandemic which, in his own words, “silently stalks” both the United States and the globe. Remarks he made during his inauguration speech that the US may be entering “the toughest and deadliest period of the virus” coupled with Thursday’s sobering headlines that the number of American virus related deaths had surpassed the country’s troop fatalities in World War II, only serve to underscore the point. To its credit, the new administration has lost no time and has already unveiled a plan to up vaccinations and testing with officials eager to highlight that the President would sign ten executive orders or directives to kick-start the national strategy.

On a broader policy note, Biden immediately sought to undo a raft of Trump policies by signing 17 executive orders, including a decision to re-join the Paris climate accord, a move lauded by numerous world leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron. Additional executive orders related to a mask mandate for all federal buildings, maintaining the US in the World Health Organization, a boost to environmental regulations and the ending of the trademark Trump policy of banning entry from a number of Muslim-majority countries. Another pro-migrant policy included putting a stop to another Trump campaign promise – the border wall.

Despite the clear statement of intent demonstrated by these series of executive orders and Biden’s desire for healing and renewed hope in America it is almost certain that in a country which has seen a severe decline in its quality of public discourse and the erosion of a public domain of shared facts as the basis for political debate that the word which Biden used no less than eight times in his inauguration speech will remain elusive – “Unity”.

The United States’ “Second Irish President”

From a domestic Irish perspective, Biden’s ascendancy to the Presidency is being hailed as a significant opportunity with many eager to draw comparisons with President John F. Kennedy and characterise Biden as America’s “second Irish president” – such characterisations tend to overlook the Irish roots of many Republican Presidents throughout the centuries. That said, Biden has never missed the opportunity to express affinity for his ancestral homeland, frequently quoting Irish poetry, regaling reporters on previous trips to the island and joking that the only downside to the appointment of Irish-American Marty Walsh as his Secretary of Labour was that his family was not from Mayo but Galway (Biden’s roots lie in County Mayo and County Louth). His comments to RTÉ’s (Irish national broadcaster) Washington Correspondent Brian O’Donovan that he could “ask about Ireland” anytime the reporter wanted is also noteworthy in its tone even if the comment itself was made light-heartedly. Bearing the above in mind it appears only a matter of when, COVID-19 permitting, rather than if a Presidential visit will occur.

Biden, Brexit and the UK-Ireland Dynamic

While Biden’s ascendancy to the presidency was greeted by all the usual formalities from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who noted that  America’s leadership is “vital” to the rest of the world, the formers’ interventions during the white-heat of Brexit negotiations in late 2020 will not be forgotten quickly in Downing Street and are yet another example of Biden’s not insignificant support for Ireland during the Brexit process. In November, when asked what message he had for Brexit negotiators with respect to Northern Ireland he said: “We do not want a guarded border. We worked too hard to get Ireland worked out…The idea of having the border North and South once again being closed…it’s just not right.” Similar sentiments were expressed during the presidential election itself and prompted one former adviser to ex-Taoiseach Enda Kenny to lament that such interventions should be cited when perennial complaints about the expense or relevance of the Irish Government’s St Patrick’s Day programme in Washington arise. Whether future statements from President Biden will be as explicitly pro-Irish or be tempered by the restraints of office remains to be seen. Aside from Brexit, there is of course the issue of a trade deal between the UK and US with some commentators suggesting that such a deal could be “next to impossible” as Biden will seek to put middle-class and the “folks in the rust belt” at the heart of his foreign policy.

European Union Reaction

The European Union’s top officials also welcomed the fact that Europe would have a trusted ally on Pennsylvania Avenue again. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted emphatically that the “United States is back” and outlined in a speech to the European Parliament on Wednesday that “Europe is ready for a new start with our oldest and most trusted partner”. Von der Leyen added that bearing the above sentiment in mind the Commission had, in December,  proposed a new transatlantic agenda. The agenda itself spans four areas including COVID-19 and its aftermath, climate change, technology, trade and standards, and strengthening democracy. However, Despite the general upbeat nature of Von der Leyen’s comments, mirroring the hopeful tone of Biden’s inauguration speech, her speech did not come without a significant cautionary note and a warning for Europe as she recalled the storming of the Capitol on January 6th:

“…although Donald Trump’s presidency may be history in just a few hours, his movement will not…Just a few days ago, several hundred of them stormed the Capitol in Washington, the heart of American democracy…That is what happens when words incite action. That is what happens when hate speech and fake news spread like wildfire through digital media. They become a danger to democracy. We should take these images from the USA as a sobering warning. Despite our deep-rooted confidence in our European democracy, we are not immune to similar events.

Compliments of Vulcan Consulting – a member of the EACCNY.