US President Donald Trump zoomed across the Old Continent, in Neil Young’s words “Like a Hurricane”. Just like the eye of this element, what occurs in Trump’s inner-circle is nothing like the reality of the outer rim. While the President himself tweeted that his European journey “was a great success”, others likened his visit to that of a “drunk tourist’s” rampaging; referring to Mr. Trump’s two-round handshake battle with the French President Emmanuel Macron, or to him shoving Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic aside prior to a photoshoot at the NATO headquarters. With the new US administration casting doubt on the long lasting forthcoming trans-Atlantic relations with the EU, new opportunities for the European bloc are emerging, with Trump potentially acting as a catalyst for European unity.
That the US President’s first official European visit was not that much of a “great success” can be also derived from some of the highest-positioned European officials – President of the European Council Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Initially, after having hosted Mr. Trump together with other top EU officials in the Consillium’s chambers, Mr. Tusk commented on the meeting saying “The greatest task today is the consolidation of the whole free world around [Western] values, and not just interests.” One can easily read between the lines that these words were most likely aimed at Mr. Trump’s many global business interests, and how these conflicts of interest might take precedence over the values that have previously united the West.
These words were uttered seemingly as a reaction to Mr. Trump’s flamboyant and glamorous (he was treated as royalty and even received the highest Saudi civilian honor) visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where the US commander-in-chief signed arms exports memorandum worth a record-busting $110 billion. Moreover, it is not just on trade that the US President seems to be overlooking the EU. The fact that Mr. Trump chose, quite ironically given his fierce anti-Muslim rhetoric and deeds, Saudi Arabia for his first foreign visit as President paints a picture of where his priorities lie when it comes to international relations.
While it is true President Trump’s past statements about the EU were rather antagonistic, the administration’s official policy toward the world’s strongest economic bloc remained unclear.
Hitherto, Mr. Trump’s visit was expected – or hoped – to shed some light into how the President’s team aspires to conduct itself in dealings with its trans-Atlantic partner. Yet, the only tangible policy elements that resurfaced during Trump’s European mission was a reiteration of his call to NATO partners to meet their defence spending requirements. On climate change, Trump was – apparently – still undecided during his visit. Although based on his subsequent pledge to withdraw the US from the Paris Accords, one can surmise that he would not risk the ire of his European partners during his stay.
However, what was most worrisome for the European officials listening to Trump’s speech at the new NATO headquarters, was that the current President, unlike his predecessors, failed to explicitly confirm US allegiance to Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty – the Musketeers’ Oath.
Following these events, Chancellor Merkel, in her address during a rally in Germany, proclaimed that the Union can no longer “completely depend’ on neither of its traditional allies – the US and post-Brexit Britain. Trump’s subsequent framing of the EU as a “strategic opponent” , the term he used when explaining the US withdrawal from the Paris Accords made Chancellor Merkel’s statement seem prescient.
The fog that presently swallows the US-EU relations poses a challenge to the EU, but with challenges come opportunities. In Merkel’s words, one can read that the European leaders are likely to take their chances in furthering the Union’s internal integration as well as improving its position in the international arena, be it in terms of obtaining strategic autonomy or leadership on climate change.
This move, however, must be approached with caution and will require deliberate decision-making if the EU is to emerge intact; increasing integration has become a sensitive topic within the EU, which an increasing number of individuals and entities both internally and externally oppose.
In the near future, one can expect the EU leaders to lobby the resenting member states, such as Greece, Cyprus, Austria, or Finland, to speed up their process of integration into the Union. Under the slogan of “Standing up on our own feet”, they might make the case for “stronger in unity”, by deepening the single market, and even creating a sovereign EU military corps. If this is to succeed, the EU ship’s captains ought to navigate our vessel through the raging seas of Euroscepticism, disinformation, and populism with prudence but boldness.
The same applies if the EU aspires to strengthen its role on the international level. European leadership should particularly be weary when dealing with President Trump, who resembles a pinball when it comes to policymaking; his frequent changes in opinions and attitudes make his moves notoriously unpredictable. While the Union cannot afford to alienate such an indispensable ally as the US, foresaking its core values for strategic, economic, or other interests is, as Donald Tusk reinstated, not compatible with the European agenda.
Neil Young sings
I want to love you
but I’m getting blown away.
Since Donald Trump took office at the beginning of this year, the leaders of the EU have, despite predominantly rooting for his opponent, made clear they want to keep loving the United States. But it becomes increasingly evident that they are getting blown away by the new administration. It is important that the European bloc maintains its integrity in the face of this storm, while at the same time maintaining healthy relations with the US, whom it depends on for security first and foremost. Lest, if played erroneously, the “more-EU” card could invigorate Eurosceptic voices across the continent and beyond, because every mistake, unlike every success, of the Union attracts massive attention from the public, and could potentially lead to further “exits.”
Jakub MalhockýAuthor : EUROPEUM