‘Capricious’ Trump administration discussed at EU gathering

Breakdown in relations with US will test EU self-reliance, warns Donald Tusk

EU-Western Balkans summit:   German chancellor Angela Merkel, Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borissov, French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Theresa May, in the second row. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

EU-Western Balkans summit: German chancellor Angela Merkel, Bulgarian prime minister Boiko Borissov, French president Emmanuel Macron and British prime minister Theresa May, in the second row. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

Donald Trump was the ghost at the feast. As EU leaders munched their way through the shopska salad and other Bulagarian fare – surely some Rakia was downed – Trump’s “capricious” sauce was served with each course.

In scripted remarks on Wednesday ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit, European Council president Donald Tusk had made sure observers understood what was at stake, denouncing the “capricious assertiveness of the American administration”, adding: “Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies?”.

He returned to the theme on Thursday night at the final press conference when he observed that “unpredictability” was not a problem: “The problem is if your closest friend is unpredictable.”

He agreed with the US president that “unpredictability is a useful tool in politics – but only in dealing with an enemy”.

The EU faced the most serious breakdown in memory in its relations with its old ally, Tusk warned; it was challenge that would test the mettle of EU self-reliance. There is the potential trade war over steel and aluminium tariffs, the US abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal and the moving of its embassy to Jerusalem with the bloody events in Gaza that it has triggered, each enough to eclipse the ostensible purpose of this summit – bringing the six states of the western Balkans closer to the EU.

Enlargement

The summit’s final declaration reaffirmed “its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the western Balkans”, a formula understood to mean “enlargement” but coyly refusing to say it. Tusk was, however, pulling no punches – while no dates could be given, their meeting was “no substitute for enlargement, but about a way to use the time between today and tomorrow wisely”.  There was “no future for the western Balkans, other than the EU,” he insisted.

German chancellor Angela Merkel described the meeting as a step towards enlargement.

In addition to funding new transport and electricity links and a large increase in Erasmus grants for students to study in the EU, the leaders welcomed the “partners’ commitment to the primacy of democracy and the rule of law, especially the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities”.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at the dinner on Wednesday night described the state of play in recent talks between trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström and her US counterpart, Wilbur Ross.

The latter is reported to have, as one EU source put it, “naively” suggested he assist discussions by attending the leaders’ dinner, an offer politely declined. With the UK set to be excluded from the EU’s top table when it leaves the union, there was a peculiar irony in Ross’s suggestion.

Trade liberalisation

On Thursday night Tusk said the EU was willing to enter discussions with the US on trade liberalisation, but “only if the US decides on unlimited exemptions for the EU from steel and aluminium tariffs”.

“We can’t have a situation where the EU is making concessions every six months in order to have a temporary exemption continue. That isn’t a sustainable path for us,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said.

The leaders had discussed a broad agenda for such discussions: a scoping exercise to eliminate reciprocal tariffs on industrial products, liberalising of government procurement, the “energy relationship” notably of liquified natural gas, voluntary regulatory co-operation on product safety rules and WTO reform.

Not that there is any link between such discussions and the US trade threat – the EU insists it is not to be seen as succumbing to US pressures. “We will not negotiate with the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads,” Juncker said on Thursday night.

Any more than we are expected to accept the fiction that the EU is not also succumbing to US pressure in suggesting to the US its willingness to join in pressuring Iran on its ballistic missile programme and regional military adventures.  No, no, these are quite unrelated issues ...

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