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10th Apr 2020

EU envoy sheds light on weird US diplomacy

  • US envoy to EU, 62-year old hotelier Gordon Sondland (c), took up his post in mid-2018 (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Remarks to Congress by the US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, have shed light on the unusual nature of American foreign policy under president Donald Trump.

Sondland testified in Washington DC on Thursday (17 October) as part of an impeachment enquiry into whether Trump blackmailed Ukraine on interfering in the upcoming US election.

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Some of Sondland's comments gave a peek into normal events in the salons of Brussels that press do not attend.

The US mission to the EU, for instance, hosted an Independence Day party on 4 June 2019 that involved some 700 politicians, diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and NGO members.

Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was one of them.

"Following the main event, we hosted a smaller, separate dinner for about 30 people. President Zelensky and several other leaders of EU and non-EU member states attended the dinner, along with ... numerous key US and EU officials," Sondland said on Thursday.

"We viewed this event as an opportunity to present president Zelensky to various EU and US officials ... The event was well-received", he added.

"Contrary to some reporting, [Irish pop star] Bono did not attend or perform," he noted.

The ambassador also gave an insight into US thinking on Ukraine.

"The United States has viewed Ukraine with strategic importance, in part to counter Russian aggression in Europe," he told Congress.

US military aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia was part of our "broader agenda of aligning with our EU partners to counterbalance Russian influence in the region", he added.

And private-sector Western investment in Kiev was "a counterbalance to Russian interference and oligarch control of key Ukrainian companies", he also said.

Sondland said Ukraine was "central to [his] ambassadorial responsibilities", even though he had been posted to the other edge of the European continent.

Those comments also reflected normal transatlantic diplomacy.

The EU and US have coordinated Russia sanctions over Ukraine out of Brussels for years.

US state department special envoys on Ukraine have also gone back and forth between Kiev, Brussels, and Washington to forge common policy.

But Trump's ambassador to the EU got more closely involved in the dossier than his predecessors.

He personally travelled to Odessa in Ukraine with an EU delegation in February. He also went to Kiev in May for Zelensky's inauguration, offered to draft joint US-Ukraine communiques, and acted as a middle man in White House communications with Zelensky's administration.

Recalling one phone call with Trump, Sondland said: "I asked the president: 'What do you want from Ukraine?' ... This was a very short call. And I recall the president was in a bad mood."

Private diplomacy

Sondland is a 62-year old hotel magnate and a Trump campaign donor with no foreign policy experience.

It is standard practice for the US, unlike EU countries, to appoint non-diplomats as ambassadors.

But Sondland's flamboyant personality - he posts videos of himself in his jet with politicians and reportedly once joked he was sent "to destroy the European Union" - has made him stand out even more from US and EU officials.

But Trump's use of personal friends to conduct statecraft looked weird even to him.

When Sondland first learned that Trump had designated his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to handle Ukraine contacts, he was surprised since Giuliani had no "official or unofficial role" in the state department.

"Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters. However, given the president's explicit direction ... we agreed to do as president Trump directed", Sondland told Congress.

The US ambassador denied any knowledge of the alleged Ukraine blackmail.

He also spoke well of the EU, saying: "A strong, united, and peaceful Europe helps to uphold the norms that maintain political stability ... around the world".

He has been less eccentric than some of Trump's other EU envoys, such as the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who once said to Breitbart News he wanted to "empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders," which was interpreted by some as support for the far right in Europe.

He has also been far less eccentric than Trump himself.

His Congress testimony was trivial compared to Trump's ever-multiplying clashes with the EU on Syria, Iran, Jerusalem, Nato, Brexit, free-trade, and climate.

G7 invitation

But it helped to shed light on how strange US-EU diplomacy has become in the Trump era.

And Europe will get more of the same in June next year, when top EU officials and the heads of France, Germany, Italy, and the UK are to go to Trump's privately-owned National Doral golf resort in Florida for the next G7 summit together with Canada and Japan.

The invitation posed questions if the four EU leaders would become part of another Trump conflict of interest fiasco.

They would be charged only "at cost" so that Trump would not profit from the event, Mick Mulvaney, the White House acting chief-of-staff said on Thursday.

But for Peter Welch, a Democratic US representative, the G7 golf venue meant "all pretence is gone" that Trump played by normal rules.

"He'll probably have Ivanka there, checking them [G7 leaders] in and taking deposits," Welch joked, referring to Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, whom the president hoisted, along with other close relatives, into top White House posts.

This piece was corrected on Sunday 20 October on the quote of the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who also disagreed with the interpretation of his quote.

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