Economy & Politics

InterviewEx-US Ambassador Gardner: “It’s hard not to like Joe Biden”

Anthony Gardner at a press conference during his time as US ambassador to the EU in Brusselsdpa

You can hear the entire conversation with Anthony Gardner here in the original:


Mr. Gardner, how many hours have you watched CNN in the past few days and nights?

ANTHONY GARDNER: (laughs) I tried to limit my CNN consumption. I am currently in Tuscany where I am trying to stay healthy and keep television to an absolute minimum.

Let’s look at the US: Republicans still refuse to recognize Joe Biden’s election victory. That was what was expected of Donald Trump. But aren’t you surprised by the Republicans’ behavior?

I was very disappointed. Look, there are two basic principles in any democracy: First, all votes count and should be taken into account. Second, there should be a peaceful transfer of power. The current administration has no mathematical chance of changing the result – even if there were irregularities and invalid votes somewhere. Nevertheless, the White House wants to postpone the handover process as long as possible, prevent any funding and prevent any cooperation with the new government. This is a break with our history – and that is very sad.

For days, Democrats and Republicans have apparently been operating in parallel worlds. Joe Biden has started work with his transition team, the Republicans are silent or go to court. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has oracle about a second term Trump. Do you have any doubts that the transfer of power will succeed as usual?

Well, somehow it will work, but of course it is problematic if the transition team does not get access to government funds or government information. The new government has to be up to date and understand many issues. I have been involved in such power transfers twice, serving in the White House under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. For example, we wrote memos for the new government. That is the basic principle in democracy.

What does it mean in concrete terms if the Biden team does not have access to safety briefings?

In many cases, the new administration will not understand what has happened in many areas until January 20th. So a lot of time is wasted. I don’t think it will come to that, but there is some risk involved in having to grapple with complex negotiations and understand what is happening. It is very bad for the country.

What is the main motivation for Republicans?

The party remains owned by Donald Trump, which is very sad because there are basic standards of behavior that one would hope would be respected by all in a democracy. Unfortunately, in the United States, we have become very tribal. And unfortunately there are quite a number of Republicans who are ready to support Donald Trump, whatever he does. And that’s a very slippery slope. By the way, that’s one of the reasons why I supported Joe Biden from the start. I think after another four years of Donald Trump, democracy in the United States would be in jeopardy.

Will the US overcome the damage that is now being done?

I’m naturally an optimist. Fortunately, something is changing now. But I am not naive because the country is extremely divided.

And 70 million Americans voted again for Donald Trump. You made a conscious decision for this man and his politics.

Yes, we certainly have to listen to 70 million Americans who voted for Trump even though they know what kind of person he is. So no one is naive to believe that Joe Biden, for all his great qualities, will be able to fix anything. But we are on the right track to healing at least some of these divisions and making sure that media independence is respected, that the independence of the judiciary is respected, that minorities are respected and that everyone feels part of the United States. That in itself is a big deal. In the next four years it will be a key challenge to cement this progress. And hopefully it will be the first step to push back demagogic populism in the world.

At least the populists have lost their leader a little. You know Joe Biden well and have worked with him. What did you think when you heard him speak?

He hit exactly the right note, presidential, just right. It was not a triumphant speech in which he called for the country to come together. Joe Biden has decades of Senate experience and works with colleagues across the aisle. Even during the Obama years, he was often sent to negotiate with Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. Joe Biden, more than anyone else, has the skills and respect he has gained for trying to resolve these issues.

Can you explain that a little?

It is very difficult not to like the man, these are qualities that are now extremely important. It’s not just his experience, it’s his character. That’s why I supported Biden’s election campaign from day one. Many of my friends, especially in Europe, thought I was hopelessly naive because he would never win. I said: he is the man for this moment.

There are many voices of relief in Europe. The most important heads of government immediately congratulated. Hopes are high that relationships will improve. That it becomes less aggressive and more constructive. Are these expectations justified, excessive, premature or misleading?

Well, surely a lot will change both in tone and substance. I hope the expectations are not exaggerated because then we are all disappointed, right? We have to be realistic. And believe me, the transition team is realistic about the scale of the domestic policy challenges, which will be key, but also the external policy challenges. Before the transition period, we asked ourselves what can be done in the first two years. This is relatively undisputed, especially in relation to Europe. We have a list for the first day, the first hundred days, and the first year – it’s ready. But we need to focus firmly on what can actually be done to make a real difference to the American public, in trade and other areas.

What will change in terms of content besides the tone?

We cannot get involved in the super-ambitious initiatives of the past, in things that are taking a very long time. Because if we fail to improve collaboration with allies and institutions in the next four years, if we don’t make it clear that working within regulations and institutions is a better way to get results – well, there is that again Away from Trump, insulting allies and undermining rules and institutions. Then in four years we could have an even worse form of demagogic populism. And I appeal to Europe, I appeal to Germany, to also think about what they can do.

“It is time we sit down with the EU and explain how we can reform the rules that China has radically abused for years”

Anthony Gardner

What is our homework?

There is homework for all of us. This is not an attempt to preach because, by the way, we Americans are now learning to be humble. We have had four very, very worrying years. We have learned that our democracy is also in danger. That’s pretty shocking. We thought that this could only happen elsewhere. There are essentially three areas: What can we do in retail? What can Europe do where to move? There are difficult issues. For example in agriculture, which explains our deficit in trade with Europe. Europe does not need to water down standards in its food or health sectors. But we have to rethink things if we want to get a deal on tariffs on industrial goods, for example. Second, also not a new issue: there will continue to be pressure on defense spending. We have to interpret them more broadly. I am the first to say that Europe bears its burden in other areas, something with migration or with climate protection. But there must also be movement in defense. The third point concerns China.

Here in Europe there was the impression that it was above all a struggle for hegemony between the USA and China.

Europe is in the process of coordinating better with the US on how we treat China with regard to its trade and economic policy. Their policies pose a risk to all of us. It is time we sit down with the EU and explain how we can reform the rules that China has been radically abusing for years. We have to bring China to one table, that is probably the first item on the agenda.

Do you see any chance of reviving the TTIP talks – that is, a comprehensive free trade agreement between the US and the EU?

No None.

That’s a short, straight answer.

Well, I was involved in the TTIP negotiations. The regret was great that we didn’t make it. But guess what? We made mistakes. Both sides. We are not going to come back to this kind of ambitious trade deal. There is no political will for it either in Europe or in the US. So let’s be adults. Let’s not waste time threshing empty straw or “chasing moonbeams” as I like to say. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

They talked about defense spending and NATO: even the French President has called NATO “brain dead”. How can we revive them? Is it all about the money?

It’s not just about money. It’s about smart spending. When I was ambassador to the EU, I noticed that some countries spend most of their defense budgets on “soft” items like salaries and pensions. Things that are not relevant to the battlefield. And the bill is pretty shocking in some cases. Belgium, for example, spends one percent of its € 550 billion budget on defense. But that’s not the shocking part. The shocking thing is that of the 5.5 billion euros, 70 percent is spent on salaries and pensions. You can imagine what someone in the Pentagon thinks when they do the math. For them this is a rounding error. They ask themselves: How can it be that a country, small but wealthy, only spends a few billion dollars?

“We should work together even more; only together can we leverage the power of our markets and values ​​and jointly establish standards for key technologies. We have to make sure that the Chinese don’t master these standards “

Anthony Gardner

Does that also apply to Germany? Are we a rounding error?

You know, there has been a lot of criticism of Germany. I think the tone was unacceptable. But the point is still there. We have to do something to better spend money. Europe is making progress. In terms of common platforms and procurement, I am personally in favor of greater autonomy in some cases as long as it is not competitive or undermines NATO. But Europe has legitimate points; it should be able to conduct operations on its own and protect and defend its interests.

There is the theory that under Barack Obama the focus of the United States shifted to Asia and the Pacific, especially China. Europe is no longer of so much strategic interest. How do you see it

I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s not true either. In Obama’s first term, the focus was certainly on Asia. Because Asia was underestimated as an economic and political power. But just because the importance has grown does not mean that the importance of Europe is decreasing. Both with us and with you, the population and economic output are declining. The conclusion should therefore be exactly the opposite: We should work together even more, only together can we leverage the power of our markets and values ​​and jointly establish standards for key technologies. We have to make sure that the Chinese don’t master these standards. The Chinese understand that the window of action is still open, that we still have the opportunity to actually set the rules and standards for global trade, privacy and the digital economy.

You have just published a book called Stars with Stripes, which is about the core and essence of transatlantic relations. What is the core?

Not only the Member States of Europe, but the EU and its institutions are important. The EU is the United States’ essential partner in many areas. I name nine areas in my book, some of which are known, such as trade policy, and others that are less known, such as law enforcement, energy security, and climate change. Of course, some people will question whether that is the case. Climate change is certainly one of the best examples. If the US and the EU had not supported the Paris Agreement, we would never have got there. You know, we’ve had a lot of disagreements, but we also agree on a lot of things. There is no way we can reform the WTO and bring China to the table on our own. That is why we are indispensable partners.

Do you think Trump will give in and admit defeat?

Difficult question. It will probably be an admission without an admission. He will say, “I have to go, but the election was stolen. She is a scam. That’s awful. It’s a sad day for blah blah blah.… “The usual speech. So he lays the foundation for a narrative for his return, the return of a family member or another demagogue in four years. So what he’s doing is incredibly irresponsible in tearing apart the very foundations of a democracy, which is that people must have confidence in the system’s functioning. He has a terrible message because many of his followers actually believe it. If that’s the direction we’re going, our democracy is fragile.

It’s not just about his core supporters and fans. Again, 70 million Americans voted for him.

Oh yes, absolutely. It would be wrong to spurn or disparage one’s voters. Something very significant has happened: Trump received the second highest number of votes any candidate has ever received. And we really need to understand what is behind these voices. And we also need to clean up our social media. The way information is disseminated in the United States is an issue of great concern.

We are also faced with this in Europe.

I believe the online platforms are beginning to understand that the extent to which misinformation has taken place cannot go on like this. We must also fight to ensure that the quality of our media is guaranteed.

My last question: you are in Tuscany, in a kind of exile. Are you planning to return to the US or what are your plans?

It’s a wonderful exile. I’m here in my little paradise, it’s cheaper than any therapy. You see, I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I’ve been here for 29 years and have both an American and an Italian passport – my wife is Spanish. So I have no plans to go back to the US. But I put my heart and soul into this campaign. I’m sure Joe Biden is the right man. So I’ll do everything I can to help.


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