Wednesday

20th Jan 2021

Sofia summit: EU leaders search for a Trump strategy

  • European leaders meeting in Sofia are set to continue fighting for rules-based international system despite recent US decisions on climate change, tariffs and Iran (Photo: eu2018bg/Flickr)

"The world is in disorder," European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker declared on Wednesday (16 May).

And for the Europeans, the problem is made more acute by the fact that the disorder is largely created by their closest historical ally, the United States.

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  • Tusk on Trump: 'With friends like that, who needs enemies?' (Photo: Consilium)

On Wednesday evening in Sofia, EU leaders spent several hours over dinner discussing how to protect the EU's interests, after two recent decisions by US president Donald Trump : scrapping a nuclear deal with Iran and potentially sanction European companies doing business there and threatening to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium from 1 June.

"With friends like that, who needs enemies?" European Council president Donald Tusk said before the meeting, setting the mood among EU leaders.

Tusk hit out at "the capricious assertiveness of the American administration" under Trump.

But thanks to Trump, he said, "we have got rid of all illusions. He has made us realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm."

"Europe must do everything in its power to protect, in spite of today's mood, the transatlantic bond. But at the same time we must be prepared for those scenarios, where we will have to act on our own," he added.

According to an EU source, leaders agreed to "continue fighting for rules-based international system despite recent decisions on climate change, tariffs and Iran".

The EU will continue to support the Iran deal "as long as Iran respects the deal" but will address US concerns over Iran's role in the Middle East crisis and its ballistic missile programme.

In order to protect EU companies from US extraterritorial sanctions, they agreed to modernise the so-called blocking statute, a 1996 regulation that prevents companies to recognise certain non-EU jurisdictions decisions.

EU leaders also laid out the main lines of their strategy in the trade dispute with the US.

According to the source, they reaffirmed that they will "not negotiate with a gun at its head," but they said they are ready to talk with the US once its decides on a permanent tariffs exemption for the EU.

The EU would be ready to "improve reciprocal market access, for industrial products, including amongst others cars, and liberalisation of public procurement," the source said.

The European leaders said they would be ready to also work with the US to reform the World Trade Organization (WTO) - a nod to address concerns over Chinese trade practices and over a more technical issue with the WTO's Appellate Body.


They also opened the door for discussions on energy relationship with the US, in particular about liquefied natural gas (LNG), which the US is keen on selling in Europe.

The discussions, which officials said were long but with "no real controversy", stuck to the issues of the day and avoided a wider questioning of the EU's relations under Trump, despite Tusk's tough words.

"The way to address will give answer to the broader question on how Europe should deal with the Trump administration," a senior EU official had noted before the meeting.

"Most of the leaders think the same [as Tusk], but they cannot say it," an EU official told EUobserver, noting that the bloc wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with its main allies.

'There is no strategy''

Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that "it is no longer the case that the United States will simply just protect us".

She insisted that "Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands. That's the task for the future."

But "there is no strategy" to do it, a senior diplomat noted.

"There is no possibility to have a vision of the EU-US relationship as long as Trump is here," he told this website.

He said that the EU only wanted to "maintain a status quo, and some links with the US, until a new president arrives, hoping it is someone else [after the 2020 election]".

As Europeans have lost the guarantee that Trump would activate article 5 - the Nato clause for mutual defence - they are focusing more on EU's own security policies, the two officials noted.

After Wednesday's dinner, some considered that the openings made by the leaders on trade risked to be seen as a weakness that would "show that Trump's irrationality pays off", the diplomat noted.

In addition to Russia's destabilising policies or China's military and commercial rise, Trump's US has raised another question for the EU.

"Should we be the only one that continue to follow the rules?" asked the official.

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