President Trump’s attempts to divide the EU have had a unifying effect
Europe has responded to Trump’s broadsides by showing it is capable of going on alone
Nato and trade: President Trump’s increasing demands have shown the true resilience of the European Union. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty
“The times in which we could rely fully on others – they are somewhat over,” Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, reflected ruefully after Donald Trump’s European tour.
Germany is not alone in trying to reshape a future without – or certainly with less – US engagement or interest in European affairs, whether on trade or security, the environment or foreign policy issues.
Trump described the European Union as “foes” – on a par with Russia – and then qualified his comments, as he does these days. By “foes” he meant “competitors”, he said. Not, please note, “partners”, the term with which allies have described the relationship until now.
The US president deliberately threw hand grenades into fraught internal German and UK political debates
“This seems to be the end of an era, one in which the US led and Europe followed,” says Ivo Daalder, a former US envoy to Nato. “Today, the US is heading into a direction on key issues that seems diametrically opposite of where Europe is heading. Merkel’s comments are an acknowledgment of that new reality.”
Trump’s partners in the EU have noted with discomfort that the US president is more comfortable dealing with nuclear-armed autocrats than with the elected leaders of liberal democracies, the United States’ closest friends since 1945.
“Trump behaved on this trip as if he were determined to force regime change in Berlin and London rather than Pyongyang or Moscow,” a Reuters’ commentator has observed.
The US president deliberately threw hand grenades into fraught internal German and UK political debates and threatened – though later again suggesting he mis-spoke – to pull out of Nato unless member states immediately increased their subs to the organisation, not withstanding the fact that Nato does not itself fund the defence of the alliance; each member state is meant to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on its own defence, but some have not yet reached that target.
Already worried about the US commitment to the organisation’s core promise – all to defend one, if attacked – Trump has succeeded in getting states to ramp up defence budgets not out of sympathy with an allegedly overburdened US, but out of fear that it may not prove a durable ally.
His onslaught on his European allies arises partly from his businessman’s sense that the United States does not have friends, only rivals. Partly it is an expression of a visceral distrust of multilateral organisations.
Yet in no small measure the postwar creation of such organisations, from the economic – the World Bank, the IMF, Gatt – to the political – Nato and the EU itself, no less than the UN – was part of a US construct to corral states and cement dependence on US hegemony.
But the EU regards multilateralism as part of its DNA. Speaking to the UN Security Council in May, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, warned simply: “The new global order will be multilateral, or it will not be.”
There is a real fear in Europe that losing the checks and balances on the great powers provided by the constraints of multilateral diplomacy, the need to take others’s positions into account, will make the world a more dangerous place.
Europe’s response, however, has not been a passive acceptance of US diktats. On trade, the union has not hesitated to meet tariffs with countermeasures against US goods.
And we saw this week the signing in Tokyo of the largest free trade deal in EU history. Trump had described the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade pact between 12 Pacific Rim nations that he has tried to scupper – as tantamount to rape of the US, and that the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was “the worst trade deal in history”. The TPP is being reconstituted without the US, and the EU-Japan deal is an equally eloquent riposte to his crude mercantilism.
If the US wants to distance itself, then Europe is happy to show it can go it alone
In Beijing on Monday the union also signed an important co-operation agreement with China that was explicitly cited as a defence of global free trade multilateralism and of the rules-based World Trade Organisation.
The EU has also pushed back against the Trump repudiation of the Iranian nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, resuscitating measures to protect European companies against threatened US sanctions for trading with Tehran.
The union has made clear its total opposition to US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and continues to press for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue.
And, despite some internal wavering, the union is maintaining its sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and Crimea, on which observers fear Trump may have given Putin secret assurances.
On climate change the EU has assumed a global leadership role in pressing for the full implementation of the landmark Paris accord on greenhouse gases, despite the US pull-out.
Trump’s attempt to provoke divisions in the EU on this trip and in recent months has had a significantly unifying effect on the union. If the US wants to distance itself, then Europe is happy to show it can go it alone.
In Merkel’s words: “I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands – of course in friendship with the US, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”