Donald Trump in Europe: alliances under strain
Angela Merkel was pointing to the obvious – faced with an erratic US, the EU can only achieve its goals by pulling closer together
Donald Trump was in Europe for just a few days, but the political waves generated by the US president’s visit are still rippling across an unsettled continent. At set-piece events with ostensible US partners in the EU, G7 and Nato, Trump refused to commit to the landmark Paris climate accord or to the mutual defence clause that underpins the atlantic alliance. He berated Germany for its trade surplus and scolded Nato allies for not spending enough on defence. None of this should come as a surprise - each of these policy inclinations had been flagged by the White House - but western leaders have at least now seen for themselves that expecting the US president to evolve into a serious, responsible or generous leader is a forlorn hope.
Trump avoided a major diplomatic gaffe, but if anything the atmosphere on the tense European leg of his first overseas trip was worse than many feared. Multilateral gatherings such as the G7 are as much about symbolism as substance. That Trump seemed more comfortable with authoritarian leaders such as King Salman of Saudi Arabia or Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who he met in Riyadh last week, than with the leaders of France and Germany spoke volumes about the current shift in international relations.
What that shift means for Europe was a question broached on her return home by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who told a campaign event in Munich that Europe must “take our fate in our own hands” given that “the days in which we could completely depend on others are in some ways over.” For a German chancellor to question the reliability of its US ally made for a striking moment. But Merkel was hardly calling time on the transatlantic relationship. With an eye to her domestic and European audience, she was pointing to what has become increasingly obvious: faced with an erratic and unpredictable White House, with its purely transactional view of global alliances, and a United Kingdom rapidly turning inward, the EU can only achieve its goals by pulling closer together. In other words, less United States means more Europe.