Donald Trump’s election in 2016 was a turning point in history: for the first time since 1945, after decades of the US being Europe’s greatest ally, of strong ties and partnerships in all fields (political, economic, military…), the US president is openly antagonistic to the European Union (EU) and critical of its leaders and politics. After two years of trade wars, extended negotiations and passive-aggressive Twitter comments, how “complicated” are things between Europe and the US?
On the battlefield of international institutions
Back in the aftermath of World War II, the US were the driving force behind the creation of great international institutions including Europe, such as the European community (which would later become the EU) or NATO. At the time, the US unapologetically assumed their role as “protector” of Western Europe – against the USSR mostly – , providing it with financial, economic and military resources. Trump, however, has made it clear that in his opinion, Europe has taken advantage of America’s generosity for too long now: “Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, (…) are delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?” he tweeted in July 2018. More recently, in another tweet, he called European countries to “pay their fair share for NATO, which the US subsidizes greatly”.
Above all, it is with the EU, a traditional ally of the US, that relations have strained. Aside from an endless series of tweets ranging from berating to hostile, a trade war has broken out between the US and the EU since 2018, with Trump imposing taxes on goods imported from the EU. The EU has responded by also imposing tariffs on goods imported from the US (the EU is America’s first export market), but the EU’s position cannot be as firm as the US’s, as the stakes aren’t equivalent for all European countries – Angela Merkel, for example, is more prone to negotiate in order the protect the German cars industry. In an interview with CBS News in July, Donald Trump said that “the European Union is a foe, for what they do to [the US] on trade”, to which he added “That doesn’t mean that they are bad. It just means that they are competitive. (…) I respect the leaders of those countries. But in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us”.
A temporary truce seems to have been found in July after Donald Trump met EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, giving hope for the negotiations regarding the free-trade agreement between the US and the EU (TTIP) which had stopped after Donald Trump’s election; but the US president has undeniably sent a wave of shock through the statu quo of liberalism and fair trade in American-European relations. While this trade war doesn’t compare to the one Trump is fighting with China, it should be remembered that the US runs a trade deficit with the EU, meaning that Americans buy more things from the EU and can therefore impose tariffs on more goods.
Trump embraces Eurosceptic populist leaders
Yet it would be foolish to see Trump as some paranoid leader blindly rushing his country into protectionism and isolationism. Indeed, a “divide and conquer” strategy is discernable behind Donald Trump’s Twitter feuds and disruptive politics. Most notably, he strongly supported Brexit, even suggesting that British Prime Minister Theresa May should sue the EU.
Indeed, it appears that the far-right, populist, Eurosceptic leaders that have risen to prominence in Europe over the last decades can all find an ally in Trump: though his support for French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was rather inconsequential, he is considered an “icon” by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who promotes “illiberal Christian democracy” and is currently risking sanctions from the European Parliament for his violations of immigrant rights and public freedoms. Trump was also warmly welcomed by Eurosceptic, far-right Polish President Andrzej Duda, and considers establishing a permanent US military base in Poland. Moreover, the EU feels threatened by Donald Trump’s ties with authoritarian Russian President Vladimir Putin – even though, on the other hand, Trump encourages European countries to rely less on Russia for energy resources.
Meanwhile, another American figure is making his way through European politics: in September, former Trump counsellor Steve Bannon appeared on Twitter with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Minister of Interior and leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant Lega, and with Mischaël Modrikamen, leader of a small far-right Belgian party. Their ambition: to create “The Movement”, a party that would gather European far-right, populist, anti-immigration leaders. Steve Bannon also said he wanted to advise Viktor Orban for the European elections campaign, and that he would like to base The Movement in Budapest; as for Viktor Orban, he has already welcomed the creation of The Movement. Likewise, in 2016, Heinz Christian Strache, Austria’s far-right Vice Chancellor, signed a cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin and met Trump counsellor Mike Flynn, in the hope of forming an alliance between the three countries, especially regarding Islamic terrorism and war in Syria.
Can we hold Europe together?
So what are pro-EU leaders supposed to do? For starters, Donald Trump has been used as a reason to strengthen bonds within the EU, especially between France and Germany: president Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Angela Merkel have repeatedly advocated for unity in front of nationalism and populism. Merkel has claimed that it was time for Europe to “take matter into their own hands” and backed up Macron’s suggestion for a European army – which was met with angry Twitter feedback from Trump –, also suggesting a European Security Council, as a sign of unity and of Europe no longer relying on “old allies”. The commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice were a strong symbolic moment where the French and German leaders showed unity and solidarity, in Trump’s notable absence.
Beyond symbolic appearances and big speeches, the EU has also started looking for other trade partners and investment opportunities outside of the US. The EU recently signed trade agreements with several Southeastern Asia countries, including Vietnam, Singapore, Japan, and Indonesia. Aside from the EU trying to strengthen ties with expanding, dynamic economies, the negotiations were led under the sign of climate protection and free trade, in clear contrast to Trump’s protectionism and neglection of environment.
Still, is the “common front” strategy really possible? Today, European leaders that are pro-Europe, pro-liberalism, and to a certain extent, pro-immigration are placed in a difficult position where they can no longer just shun leaders and countries that disagree with them, in fear that they will turn to other allies seen as threatening, like Trump’s America or Putin’s Russia – the EU is also struggling with growing Chinese influence in the Balkans and Caucasus. For now, countries like Poland, Hungary, or Romania still benefit from the EU, and other EU members don’t want to see them leave.
Likewise, it’s unlikely that we are headed towards a break-up between the US and the EU, and ties remain strong between the two. But when discussing the relationship between Europe and the US, it’s important to remember that Europe isn’t the EU, and the EU isn’t just France and Germany. Brexit already put EU unity to the test, and we can reasonably expect a rise of far-right, Eurosceptic parties in the upcoming European elections. Pro-EU leaders, though they can rely on their economic weight in the EU, must prepare themselves for years of tedious negotiating and compromising, especially on the issues of sovereignty and immigration (there’s no use pretending that immigration, real or perceived, didn’t contribute to the rise of xenophobia and far-right) lest the “common front” strategy turns into a “lone rider” situation.
Today, Europe’s relationship with the US is probably not endangered, and European countries can always find new allies and partners; but Donald Trump’s arrival has brought to light the cracks and divisions within Europe and within the EU. One thing’s for sure: the international order as it stood since 1945 has changed, and every country in Europe is trying to build their ground in it.