Thursday, July 25, 2024

Joe Biden’s debate performance jolts Europe’s anxiety over Donald Trump

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At a meeting between Joe Biden and an EU leader earlier this year, the European delegation was relieved to find the US president sharp and cogent — until the final moments of the conversation.

“He ended the meeting with the same anecdote he started it with,” said a person briefed on the discussion. “Everyone’s heart sank.”

Concern over Biden’s age, mental acuity and ability to beat Donald Trump in November’s election has been steadily rising in European capitals this year, as governments worry about what Trump’s return would mean for transatlantic trade, security relations and Ukraine.

That rose on Friday morning as European officials watched Biden’s disastrous debate performance in horror, with many taking the rare step of openly criticising a sitting US president.

The anxiety comes as centrist European parties battle a rising tide of far-right and populist politicians. Hard- and far-right groups won roughly a quarter of the seats in the European parliament election, while France’s far right is expected to win the largest share of the votes in Sunday’s snap election.

“Maybe Europe will finally wake up after the first TV debate,” said Michael Roth, a German Social Democrat MP who chairs the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “Anxiously hoping that Biden will be re-elected doesn’t help at all.”

A potential second Trump presidency is viewed as a significant geopolitical threat in Europe, particularly since he threw doubt on defending Nato allies in the event of conflict and promised hefty tariffs on transatlantic trade. European diplomats are hurrying to work out mitigation measures, while at the same time praying they will not be needed.

EU officials in Brussels, who have enjoyed a far more cohesive relationship with the Biden administration, acknowledge the US president’s noticeable physical deterioration over the past four years. Multiple European diplomats at this month’s G7 leaders’ summit in Italy — where Biden skipped the formal summit dinner — privately remarked upon his noticeable lack of focus at times and physical limitations.

Politicians in Germany, a country that bore particular ire during Trump’s presidency, have expressed deep concern about Biden’s weak debate performance.

Michael Link, an MP from the liberal FDP, which is part of the ruling coalition, said “it was sometimes hard to understand what Biden was saying”.

“The Democrats will have to decide at their convention in mid-August if they are really going to field Joe Biden,” he said, adding that they should think hard now about who had the best chance of winning against Trump.

“Trump’s statements in the debate were alarming for Germany and Europe. His statements on foreign policy are confusing and irritating, for example when he claims that he would resolve the war in Ukraine with [Russia’s Vladimir] Putin, of course without mentioning the Europeans,” said Link.

Norbert Röttgen, an MP from the centre-right CDU party and a foreign policy expert, said: “The Democrats have to switch their candidate now.”

In Poland, the US presidential race is being watched with apprehension at a time when Russia is threatening Nato’s eastern flank and neighbouring Ukraine is heavily reliant on US arms supplies. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Poland have long considered Washington to be their most important security partner.

Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski joined the chorus of voices hinting that Biden should consider withdrawing to avoid a disastrous handover. “It’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset,” Sikorski quipped.

In Italy, where deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini openly touts his support for Trump, other members of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government have been highly circumspect, avoiding any public comment on the debate or Biden’s alarming performance.

However, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, now a centrist opposition lawmaker, has openly called for Biden to stand down and make way for an alternative candidate. “Joe Biden can’t do it,” Renzi wrote on X. “As a senator, vice-president and president, he served the US with honour. He doesn’t deserve an inglorious ending . . . to change horses is a duty for everyone.”

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