Dutch Consul General Ard Van der Vorst introduces the European consulates during the annual Europe Day webinar event.

Now, the European Union will come out and say it: The last four years was a period of damage control in the transatlantic relationship.  

Tomas Baert, head of trade and agriculture at the European Union delegation in the United States

Former President Trump regularly vilified longstanding allies in the EU as undermining the U.S. trade and security interests, causing European diplomats to speak with caution as they weathered the storm of his presidency.  

Not that all is healed, but the relationship has returned to a collaborative posture under President Joe Biden, who has re-entered the Paris climate accords and signaled a collaborative approach on trade and the growing China challenge, said Tomas Baert, head of trade and agriculture at the European Union’s mission to the United States in Washington.  

“We’ve moved from problem status to partner status,” Mr. Baert said during a Europe Day webinar held in May with the European consulates in Atlanta. “We are looking to move from a transactional approach to transformational.”  

Mr. Baert, a Belgian by nationality, noted a shift in the tone of the relationship: instead of simply avoiding negative, the interlocutors are now trying to accomplish big things together.  

“Now we are really seeing opportunities to use the bilateral relationship basically as a platform to serve a broader agenda that consists of global challenges,” Mr. Baert said.  

Shared priorities include recovery from the pandemic, environmental protection with prosperity, setting trade standards for the world, and enhancing democracy, he said.  

But the hurdles that remain are immense. While they  the principle of openness the two sides are moving apart on a wide variety of wedge issues that have threatened their trading relationship.  

A major irritant, Mr. Baert said, is a dispute over subsidies to Airbus, the European plane maker, that has driven the U.S. to bring a case at the World Trade Organization on behalf of Boeing (a “ceasefire” is in effect for the next few months).  

Trump’s “infamous” Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, which Mr. Biden still has not removed, continue to cause consternation among NATO allies, given that the rationale behind them is national security. 

And of course, there are divergent views on technology, from European privacy regulations to digital taxation efforts that American tech giants feel are unfairly targeting them. 

“It’s quite normal that tall trees are attracting a lot of attention in this regard,” Mr. Baert said of companies like Facebook and Google, though he noted that the EU is working to come up with a common proposal on the issue of digital taxation to take to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

The China Challenge

Resolving some of these persistent conflicts will be key to tackling what Mr. Baert believed is a consensus issue: that global collaboration will be necessary to dealing with China’s threats to democracy, human rights and trade. European nations like the Netherlands and Germany have been on the forefront of labeling Chinese oppression of its Muslim Uighur minority as genocide, a step the U.S. State Department has also taken.  

On the economic front, more could be done jointly to challenge the “state capitalism” China has used to grow its economy and gain market share around the world. With the world looking toward next-generation tech platforms like 5G, setting standards that incorporate openness and human rights will be more vital, Mr. Baert said, noting Mr. Biden’s stated intention to adopt this ally-centric approach.  

“I hope and expect more cooperation as we pursue dialogue on china end the challenges that the Chinese system present to both of us in terms of fair competition and values,” he said, noting however that the best defense against the China is sharpening the transatlantic innovation edge. “Our position vis-a-vis China has to do with making sure we run faster.” 

Procurement, Diversity and Other Local Issues

Ard van der Vorst

Dutch Consul General Ard Van der Vorst said in his comments that Georgia exports six times more to the European Union than it does to China, a fact he stressed in meetings with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on the occasion of Europe Day May 11.  

The European diplomats also met with the Raphael Bostic at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta to learn how unprecedented fiscal stimulus will affect the outlook for the U.S. economy and that of its trading partners.  

Mr. Van der Vorst said Europe welcomes Mr. Biden’s plan to “Build Back Better” but warned that indications of stronger “Buy American” provisions under Mr. Biden could aggravate another sore spot: European firms feeling they’ve been locked out of procurement contracts in the U.S.  

“Build American, buy American — it sounds very nice, but for us as a consulate it’s also a concern, because what does that mean for our companies operating here in the Southeast?” he said.  

European missions in the Southeast will also look for opportunities to be part of productive discussions on race relations, he said, keeping in mind the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests of the past year. This won’t be lecture, but a joint discussion to move toward real action especially on the equity part of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that are on the forefront of many companies’ agendas.  

Mr. Van der Vorst has been preaching the pragmatic benefits of diversity since he arrived in the relatively conservative Southeast U.S. with his husband in 2019.  

“We all know that companies do better when embracing diversity and actively include all walks of life in their organizations,” he said. “We also understand that human capital is actually the most important capital that we have as companies.”  

This year’s Europe Day webinar was a collaboration again between the European consulates and chambers. Netherlands-Ameriacn Chamber President Manori De Silva moderated the discussion, which took on a different tenor from 2020’s look at how European firms were struggling to access pandemic relief programs in the U.S. market.  

Atlanta is home to diplomatic outposts of 17 EU members, including the six career consulates covering multiple states in the South — Greece, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Belgium.  

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...