US commitment to Ukraine a central question as Biden meets with EU heads during congressional chaos

Oct 19, 2023, 9:54 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Saddled with a dysfunctional Congress, President Joe Biden welcomed European Union leaders to the White House on Friday with the promise that the United States can nonetheless deliver tens of billions of dollars worth of aid to wartime Ukraine and Israel.

Biden greeted European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen by noting their unity.

“We stood together to support the great people of Ukraine, and we stood together to tackle economic challenges,” Biden said, and now the leaders would come together to back Israel following the Hamas attack and establish standards in trade with China.

The Cabinet Room sit-down came at a moment when domestic U.S. political chaos could further destabilize an increasingly chaotic world. Many of Biden’s shared priorities with the EU depend on getting a budget through Congress — a tough task given that the House lacks an elected speaker and differences with some Republican lawmakers over aid for Ukraine could force a federal government shutdown in November.

Along with addressing Ukraine’s efforts to repel Russia and the fallout from Hamas’ attack on Israel, the U.S. and EU leaders are also figuring out how to manage climate change, economic competition with China and trade and tax issues.

One day ahead of his meeting with Biden, European Council President Michel expressed optimism that the U.S. president can deliver on his promises to help arm and financially support Ukraine.

“I’m really confident and also I’m grateful for Joe Biden’s personal leadership,” Michel said. “He will do everything to ensure this support will be confirmed.”

The U.S. president has cultivated a personal relationship with Michel and von der Leyen, who calls Biden “dear Joe.”

Both the EU and U.S. pride themselves for being devoted to democratic principles, a source of unity as they navigate Russia’s war in Ukraine and the war between Israel and Hamas. They have framed their support for Israel as a reflection of shared democratic values and stressed the importance of following international law in military operations.

But the reality of democracies is that foreign policy agreements can change with elections and competing interests at home can overshadow diplomacy. The two partners still have differences to reconcile on trade, economic matters and the incentives for shifting to renewable energy sources. The U.S. and EU still need to finalize an agreement on environmentally sustainable steel and aluminum production in order to avoid the tariffs imposed during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s own incentives on moving away from fossil fuels have left Europe “a little bit uncomfortable,” said Federico Steinberg, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

While the EU welcomes U.S. efforts to “accelerate the green transition,” Steinberg said, some elements of Biden’s programs are protectionist in nature, discriminate against trade partners and undermine the World Trade Organization system that the EU would like to revive.

But for now, the U.S. and E.U. are focused on the big challenges of war and solidarity in their words and policy choices. The roughly 90-minute meeting was primarily focused on Israel and Ukraine, with leaders also focused on making progress on an agreement on steel and aluminum tariffs that would focus on taxing metal made through processes that generated high carbon emissions, according to two senior administration officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss the private exchanges.

“The winds are not just blowing today — today they are gale force,” von der Leyen said in remarks at the conservative Hudson Institute. “Our democracies are under sustained and systemic attack by those who abhor freedom.”

In addition to sanctioning Russia, EU countries have provided close to $90 billion in assistance to Ukraine, including $27 billion in military aid, von der Leyen said. But there are open questions as to whether the U.S. commitment could waver after having provided four rounds of aid to Ukraine that total $113 billion, a sum that includes replacing U.S. military equipment sent to Kyiv.

“Now is the time to double down,” von der Leyen said Thursday.

Biden asked for $105 billion in additional funding Friday, including $60 billion for Ukraine, much of which would replenish U.S. weapons stockpiles provided earlier.

There’s also $14 billion for Israel, $10 billion for unspecified humanitarian efforts, $14 billion for managing the U.S.-Mexico border and fighting fentanyl trafficking and $7 billion for the Indo-Pacific region, which includes Taiwan.

But some House Republicans have questioned the value of aid to Ukraine at the levels sought by Biden. The GOP ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after a deal to temporarily keep the government open through November 17. Republican lawmakers have failed to find a successor, leading to concerns that Biden’s commitments with the EU could be in jeopardy.

The U.S. president offered his challenge to Congress in a Thursday evening speech by outlining the core idea behind his spending proposal:

“American values are what make us a partner that nations want to work with. We put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel.”


AP writer Raf Casert contributed to this report from Brussels.

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