European leaders braced for fractious Nato summit with Trump

Unpredictable US president’s particular target at Nato may well be Angela Merkel

US president Donald Trump boards Marine One at the White House, en route to Brussels for the Nato summit. Photograph: Al Drago/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump boards Marine One at the White House, en route to Brussels for the Nato summit. Photograph: Al Drago/Getty Images


Donald Tusk was getting his retaliation in first. Speaking on the eve of the Nato summit in Brussels, the European Council president rhetorically addressed US president Donald Trump, who is heading to the Belgian capital for the start of his three-state European visit.

“Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many ... ”

Leaders gathering for the two-day Nato summit, which opens on Wednesday, are dreading another onslaught from a president whose commitment to the military alliance since his election is at best half-hearted. He bitterly resents what he sees as the US subsidising the defence of Europe.

And with Trump, attack is the best form of defence.

“European soldiers have been fighting shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in Afghanistan; 870 brave European men and women sacrificed their lives, including 40 soldiers from my homeland, Poland, ” Tusk reminded the US at a signing on Tuesday of an EU-Nato co-operation declaration.

“Dear Mr President,” he continued, “please remember about this tomorrow, when we meet at the Nato summit, but above all when you meet President [Vladimir] Putin in Helsinki. It is always worth knowing: who is your strategic friend? And who is your strategic problem?”

Dreaded Helsinki

Trump’s trip to Europe embraces Nato on Wednesday, then it’s on to London for two days in the UK and then to Helsinki for the meeting with Russia’s president.  

His western allies dread that meeting, fearing that Putin may play him and that Trump might unilaterally cancel planned Nato exercises, as he did with Korean exercises at his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Or that he might abandon sanctions on Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

He’s in combative form, having sent letters to most of his fellow Nato leaders, chiding them for their paltry military budgets, and setting off on Tuesday with the provocative suggestions that the meeting with Vladimir Putin may be “the easiest of them all” and that he may look up his old friend Boris Johnson when he’s in London.

On Tuesday Trump tweeted: “Nato countries must pay MORE, the United States must pay LESS. Very Unfair!”

Allies are concerned that the unpredictable Trump may try to bargain US troop strength in Europe for increased military spending by others. Or that he may try to use the issue to exert pressure on them on trade, a linkage that is strictly taboo in security and defence discussions.

His unpredictability is a “design feature”, says one European diplomat. “He comes to this meeting not only prepared to go into confrontation with his peers and allies but with his own staff.”

Targeting Merkel

His particular target at Nato may well be Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, whom he has warned, he says, that the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in her country might not be worth the expenditure.

Merkel is resigned to the fact that there’s no pleasing Trump. From trade deficits to the Iran deal, gas pipelines, car tariffs and migration, Germany and this US administration are at permanent odds. 

And German defence spending at 1 per cent of GNP is barely half what Trump insists is required – the 2 per cent threshold set at the 2014 Nato summit in Wales. Germany has promised to increase military spending to 1.5 per cent of its economy by 2024. The UK is among the few that actually meets the 2 per cent spending goal.

The meeting could be fractious.

Ireland is not a Nato member, and will not be represented at the summit. It spends a relatively paltry 0.33 per cent on defence, far less than any of its EU partners, but has promised to raise it as part of its commitment to the new EU defence framework, Pesco.

Aware, however, that some of its partners regard is as having a free ride on European defence, Dublin will watch the reaction to the US shakedown with some disquiet.