(Bloomberg) -- US President Joe Biden’s visit to France for the D-Day commemoration saw plenty of warm gestures but little movement on the policies that really matter for Emmanuel Macron and the rest of the European Union. 

Biden refused to join a French initiative to deploy military trainers on the ground in Ukraine, skirted over their disagreements over the Israel-Hamas war and offered nothing but rhetoric on the trade disputes and subsidies that have soured economic relations between the transatlantic partners. 

“We have shown the world once again the power of allies and what we can achieve when we stand together,” Biden said when they spoke together to reporters. “That’s what this relationship between France and the United States exemplifies.”

Macron was hosting the US leader barely a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping also visited France. While the French leader clearly has a better rapport with Biden, he gained nothing of substance from either meeting, underlining the tough choices facing France and the EU in an era of increasing geopolitical competition. 

The timing is conspicuous for the French president, with about 360 million people eligible to vote in bloc-wide parliamentary elections that culminate on Sunday. Macron has presented the election as an existential fight for the continent and pivotal for Ukraine’s battle against Russia. 

“It’s a perilous time for Europe, which faces a triple threat from China, from the possible return of Donald Trump, and from within, as voters across the bloc tilt to the far right, making political consensus more challenging,” said Noah Barkin, Europe-China expert at the German Marshall Fund and Rhodium Group.

The most pressing of those issues is set to unfold this week with the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, expected to notify Chinese electric vehicle producers of the results of an investigation into state aid offered by Beijing. The commission will likely impose tariffs on EVs imported from China and Xi’s government has threatened retaliation. 

One major handicap for Macron and for the EU is the perennial struggle to establish a common strategy that the bloc’s major powers can all support wholeheartedly. Macron’s plans for training Ukrainian troops on Ukrainian soil is a classic case in point. 

It has practical value for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, because it’s more efficient to train new troops close to the front lines rather than sending them to France or Germany. And there’s also a strategic rationale: It incrementally dials up the allies’ commitment to Ukraine and sends a signal to Russia. 

But it also carries risks and for that reason Macron has struggled to win over additional members of his coalition — Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have both ruled out sending their own personnel.

So what could have been a signal of European strength risks looking more like another display of divisions and weakness. 

Biden “fully respects President Macron’s prerogatives and his ability to express his views about what’s going on in Ukraine,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Friday. “There’s not going to be US boots on the ground in combat in Ukraine. That has been the case and that will remain the case going forward.”

A similar dynamic played out earlier this year when Macron wanted to introduce “strategic ambiguity” into his communications. The French leader hinted that he might be willing to deploy troops in combat in Ukraine. And Scholz immediately ruled it out.

Those problems are arguably more acute as the bloc tries to calibrate its response to China. 

While the German government has accepted the EV probe, despite the risks it poses to German car sales in China, officials in Berlin are skeptical about the move. On Saturday, Scholz spoke out against restricting automotive trade, saying: “We do not close our markets to foreign companies, because we do not want that for our companies either.”

In April, EU leaders called for a policy shift, in light of “geopolitical tensions and more assertive policy measures taken by international partners and competitors.” But what action this translates into is complicated when you take into consideration 27 capitals with 27 different political pressures. 

“More and more Europeans have come to the conclusion that China and its economic policies — subsidization overcapacity, economic coercion — pose a challenge to Europe’s economy,” Michael Froman, a former trade adviser to President Barack Obama, said. “With China’s active support of Russia’s efforts to militarize its economy and China’s support for Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Europeans are also increasingly coming to the view that China poses a potential challenge to European security as well.”

Germany’s powerful car industry has pushed back against tariffs, saying its business with China secures jobs at home. An escalating trade spat would fuel inflation and delay the transition to a cleaner economy, former Volkswagen AG Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess said earlier this month.

German automakers including Volkswagen and BMW AG would be hit hardest in a trade spat as they collectively sold 4.6 million cars there in 2022.

“Europe faces some very stark choices in the months ahead,” Barkin said. “Much will depend on whether Germany is willing to sacrifice its short-term economic interests on the altar of European solidarity.”

--With assistance from Jordan Fabian, Ania Nussbaum and Stefan Nicola.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.