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What Biden means for European startups

Could Biden's election bring the West together to advance technological progress?

By Nicolas Colin

It’s now safe to say that Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States. Even if Donald Trump makes the transition difficult or wants to keep thinking of himself as the real president after January 20th, it’s Biden who will be in the Oval Office along with his new administration, designing and implementing policies in various fields over (at least) the next four years.

One of these fields, a rather high-stakes one, is technology. We’re not really sure what to expect from Biden in that regard. His Democratic predecessor and former boss Barack Obama was clearly interested in technology and generally supportive of the US tech industry. Trump took a more… ambiguous approach: courting tech leaders one day, lashing out at them in the media the next. In that sense, even without having a clear view of what the future will bring, surely things can only improve for Silicon Valley under a Biden administration.

That’s domestically, however, and meanwhile we really don’t know what the European tech world can expect from the changing of the guard across the Atlantic. Although I expect that most people here are rejoicing in Biden delivering Trump a sound beating, the consequences for local founders and investors are more nuanced. I see four potential trends that are worthy of attention.

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A bit more give and take

The first and most obvious trend will be around immigration and freedom of movement: will it become easier again?

For the moment, it doesn’t matter given the travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic. But when we move forward with a vaccine, having it be easier to travel back and forth to the US will facilitate European startups entering the huge American market. Since scaling up at the global level is still the name of the game in sectors such as enterprise software, having a warmer and more welcoming America makes a real difference. 

“With the US becoming less of a bogeyman, Europe will be less tempted to erect regulatory barriers and keep US tech giants at bay.”

Another trend is that with the US becoming less of a bogeyman, Europe will be less tempted to erect regulatory barriers and keep US tech giants at bay. As was the case under Obama, Biden will likely vouch for the US tech industry, reassuring Europeans that it’s not a threat to European sovereignty. And because they will see Biden (much) more favourably than Trump, local governments, national governments and the European Commission will make life less difficult for US tech companies.

The consequences here are mixed for European founders. With US competitors more present and engaged, life will be harder for European startups if they still lack access to talent, capital and other resources necessary for competing with US tech companies (all the more so if US companies start tapping into European talent due to the switch to remote work).

But the increased presence of US tech giants will also create more opportunities for acquisitions and US-based investors deploying capital in European startup; they’ll see engaged US tech companies as an opportunity for more rewarding exits in Europe. 

Biden says, no Brexit?

A third (possible) trend is that the new administration could derail the whole Brexit process, with the UK ending up staying in the European Union. There were clear signals sent by Biden, an Irish-American, that Brexit couldn’t be implemented at the expense of the Good Friday Agreement. Boris Johnson’s government clearly got the message and is already working hard to correct course — sacking prominent Brexiteers such as strategic advisor Dominic Cummings and signalling that the UK prefers a deal with the EU after all. And so, given some of the seemingly intractable problems with finding that deal, one of the scenarios is thus that Brexit wouldn’t happen at all!

“No Brexit would probably be the best possible news for tech people in Europe.”

Although the probability is very low (those Brexiteers are really determined to make it happen, whatever the cost), that would probably be the best possible news for tech people in Europe — considering that London is the region’s most dynamic startup hub and that we’d be better off having it in the European Union rather than at its margins.

Unite for technological progress!

Finally, there’s potential for the West to come together again — and form a united vision around technology. New social contracts born of the digital era are emerging across the world. China’s version seems to work rather well (?) given their economic growth rate, but its Chinese characteristics such as mass surveillance and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party make it impossible to really emulate in the West.

“There’s potential for the West to come together again — and form a united vision around technology.”

Meanwhile, there’s already talk of what a Western vision would look like and how Western countries could come together to simultaneously advance progress and affirm liberal values. Echoing a recent article by Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine in Foreign Affairs about “uniting techno-democracies”, former Portuguese minister Bruno Maçães writes about increased collaboration between Western countries to advance technological progress. Chris Yiu, who works with Tony Blair at the Institute for Global Change, calls for “a new progressive agenda” to be implemented at this scale.

Such a thing — the West coming together to advance technological progress — hasn’t been possible lately because Trump is such a polarising figure that nobody in the rest of the Western world wanted (or was even able) to work with. But now that Biden is about to succeed him, maybe the different factions in the Western world can reconnect.

What would that change for European founders and investors? Quite a lot, actually. It’s one thing to grow startups as part of a timid industrial policy barely sustained by the European Commission and a few national governments; it’s another thing to be lifted up by a global agenda designed in the pursuit of great causes such as curbing climate change, fighting the pandemic and more. That might seem like a distant vision, but it is in such contexts that entrepreneurship flourishes and contributes to solving problems.

Nicolas Colin works for investor The Family. He writes a regular column for Sifted.

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iantha Kirkup
iantha Kirkup

We can dream. Unfortunately no chance of Brexit being scrapped. However if we dream hard enough a customs union under whatever new name would solve Biden’s Irish border concerns and perhaps allow the movement of visa free business travel. We can dream.