“All has changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born,” wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem, Easter, 1916. When Joe Biden addressed the European Parliament in 2010, he quoted these words, equating the burgeoning security challenges of the West with the Irish republican uprising against the British in the second decade of the 20th century.
The ‘all has changed’ leitmotif was employed by Biden on numerous occasions during his tenure as Vice-President, referring to a broad scope of policy areas from technology and education to employment and security. It became his stock literary reference to account for any general transformative process in the theatre of Western politics and policy. By extension, the phrase was devolved of any substance.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.
For this week’s omnishambles of a US Presidential election, Biden would do well to turn to another of Yeats’ poems, The Second Coming – “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The analogy works on several levels, not least due to the fact that the divisiveness of the campaign has illuminated the extremities of political sentiment in the US, revealing a centrist void in which certain Democrats and Republicans had once found common ground.
Not only that, but the very notion of a ‘second coming’ for Trump is enough to further exasperate the tensions at the furthest reaches of the political spectrum. The ‘anarchy’ that was ‘loosed upon the world’ hardly requires analogising, such was the chaos this week.
Notwithstanding the remnants of the anarchic episode and the likely reverberations that will follow through the US democratic system – predominantly a wave of spurious accusations of electoral fraud emanating from those in the tightest furrows of the Trump camp – the West should now look at how a President Biden will renew transatlantic relations after a choppy four years.
There is a mutual endearment between Biden and Brussels. During the 2010 visit, the then Vice-President heaped praise on the European Parliament, telling MEPs that he and Obama both believed in the ‘idea’ of Europe, “a Europe where all member states benefit by negotiating trade agreements and fighting environmental degradation with one unified voice; a Europe that bolsters the cultural and political values that my country shares with all of you; a Europe that is whole, a Europe that is free, and a Europe that is at peace.”
Not only that, but he also eulogised over Brussels’ status as a centralised geopolitical hub for Western liberalism, saying that this city, “which serves as the capital of Belgium, the home of the European Union, and the headquarters for NATO” has a legitimate claim to the title of the “capital of the free world.”
On a separate visit to the European Parliament in 2015, Biden met with the chamber’s conference of Presidents: EPP’s Manfred Weber with less grey hair, an innocent-looking Syed Kamall – the spectre of Brexit not having yet reared its head, and a spring-in-his-step Guy Verhofstadt, were among those who gleefully lined up in one of the European Parliament’s conference rooms, anticipating what appeared to be something of an angelic arrival.
And they were bashful, the MEPs, bless them. Doe-eyed and softly-spoken, they were graced by Biden’s charm and charisma. The red carpet was rolled out and Democratic America’s profound diplomatic influence over European affairs was implicit.
Trump’s Vice-President Mike Pence failed to contract any such engagement at the European Parliament. This, along with Biden’s pro-EU agenda and the pronounced support for Brexit that the Trump camp gave, could very well spell tangible challenges for Johnson in the painful final stages of the UK-EU Brexit negotiations.
Earlier this year, Biden warned the UK government that any attempt to undermine the Irish Good Friday Agreement with the implementation of Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill could impact the likelihood of a future UK-US trade deal.
Alongside this development, a bipartisan contingent of members of Congress wrote to the UK Prime Minister, highlighting their concerns about the government’s plans to give ministers the powers to overrule parts of the EU withdrawal accord. In this climate, the Irish are understood to have been reaching out to counterparts stateside as a means of jockeying for the support that they did not have under Trump.
With a new President, the dream of an ambitious and comprehensive free trade deal between the UK and the US could be resigned to the Democratic to-do lists of yesteryear, and Biden is far more likely to prefer to tighten links with European counterparts, with Macron, Merkel, and Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin understood to be prioritized ahead of Johnson.
Perhaps more importantly is where EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier features on this list. For his part, the Frenchman has remained tight-lipped on the subject of the US elections. But one thing is for sure, under Biden, the US-UK special relationship is no longer a given, shadowed as it is by the guise of Brexit.
In this respect, Commission President Von der Leyen is well aware of the strategic advantage of having Biden in the White House. Just as the American had doubled his lead in Nevada on Friday afternoon, talks between Von der Leyen and Johnson were penciled in for Saturday 7 November.
The (expected) new US President is not the only high-profile Democrat to have consecutively channelled William Butler Yeats. Obama and Hilary Clinton have both heavily referenced the Irishman’s work.
This is not without relevance: Yeats was an Irish nationalist who early on in his life was a member of the secret oath-bound Irish Republican Brotherhood, the group that staged the 1916 Easter Uprising. Following his appointment as Senator in the Irish Free State, Yeats’ Irish nationalism later strayed into the realm of authoritarianism and he is said to have composed marching songs for the fascist paramilitary organisation, the Blueshirts.
On the whole, however, Yeats’ commitment to Ireland’s prosperity and independence from the claws of colonial Britain was insatiable. Should the new US President seek to borrow from the master bard’s legacy in any such fashion, it could spell trouble for Johnson’s reverie of a Brexit Britain, and play well for Barnier’s ever-the-sweaty negotiating hand, as we bound towards the final fence of talks before the close of the year.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.