All signs suggest this week’s EU–US summit, the first in seven years, will reset transatlantic relations after Donald Trump’s tumultuous term in the White House. But it is not expected to result in concrete policy changes or the immediate lifting of US tariffs on steel and aluminium.

The meeting on June 15 in Brussels is tipped to be dominated by bargaining and negotiation, with US president Joe Biden expected to ask for greater cooperation on topics such as China before agreeing to EU demands to ease trade barriers.

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Mr Biden’s one-day meeting, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, is part of his first overseas tour as president and follows the G7 and Nato summits. “The EU–US summit is actually emerging to be one of the most significant parts of president Biden’s trip,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of Chatham House’s US and Americas programme.

Sparking optimism

Mr Biden’s behaviour at the G7 has raised expectations for Tuesday’s summit. In a televised interview after a bilateral meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron, he described the bloc as “an incredibly strong and vibrant entity” that underpins Europe’s ability to handle economic issues. “That certainly revealed that this is a president who is going to place a premium on the collaboration and multilateralism that the EU represents,” said Ms Vinjamuri.

The summit agenda includes Covid-19, climate, trade, investment and technology. Speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) event previewing the meeting, Marjorie Chorlins, senior vice president at the US Chamber of Commerce, said the “mood is upbeat” but “there are limited expectations about what we expect to come out of [it]”. 

Ms Vinjamuri sees it as a chance to reach “some agreement about how the US and EU are going to move past the tariff wars, how they are going to concretely move forward on questions on World Trade Organization reform and investment issues with respect to China’s role in Europe”. 

Leveraging tariffs

Coming into the meeting, EU officials’ and businesses’ biggest bugbear has been Trump-era tariffs on steel and aluminium. Last week, 20 senior executives leading the European operations of US companies issued an open letter calling for officials to prioritise their removal and resolve the 16-year spat over aircraft subsidies that has hit local importers in myriad sectors.  

Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Trade and Home affairs from 2014 to 2019, tweeted: “Let’s hope that the #euussummit next week will result in the US withdrawing the tariffs on steel and aluminium”, which she described as “illegitimate”. The EU has pushed for this since Mr Biden’s election in November 2020 but the domestic US agenda has been his priority.  

Mr Biden is also expected to use Mr Trump’s tariffs to his advantage. Ms Vinjamuri  believes “there will be a moment when the ask is made to cooperate on any number of dimensions” in exchange for easing trade barriers. Greater support in curbing China, with whom the EU has taken a softer stance than the US, is a likely bargaining chip.  

The agenda is not expected to include the revival of free trade talks, which Mr Trump ended early in his presidency by canning the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. “This is not a [US] president that is in a position politically to start reviving big free trade agreements,” says Ms Vinjamuri. 

Technology and data

One area where progress is anticipated is a transatlantic alliance focused on protecting critical technologies. In December 2020, the EU and the US agreed to establish a so-called Trade and Technology Council, which would be the first official transatlantic dialogue on technology and could help compete with China in the global tech race. Details are still to be hammered out but speaking at the AmCham event, Luisa Santos, deputy director general of lobby group BusinessEurope, said it could encompass a wide range of issues including critical minerals: “This is an evolving agenda in which businesses will have an important role to play.” 

The private sector has called on political leaders to work towards a replacement for the so-called Privacy Shield, a framework that permitted the free transfer of data between the EU and the US until last year, when Europe’s top court declared it illegal. “We have to have a sustainable system to transfer data across the Atlantic. It is absolutely critical,” said AmCham EU chief Susan Danger, who described the topic as low-hanging fruit for the summit.

This article has been amended to reflect an agreement reached between the EU and US on June 15 to end an almost 17-year dispute over aircraft subsidies, which also temporarily suspends tariffs on goods worth $11.5bn over five years.