22nd Mar 2018


How the EU can deal with Trump

  • If the EU wants to get the attention of Trump, it will have to earn it, first and foremost by taking more responsibility for its own security. (Photo: Matt Johnson)

If Trump’s election is not a wake-up call for the EU, then what is? Unfortunately EU foreign ministers meeting for an informal dinner on Sunday night (13 November) showed no understanding, let alone common ground, of how to deal with the future occupant of the White House.

The UK and French foreign ministers did not even show up.

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Merkel will try and get some insights on Trump from Obama when she meets him in Berlin on Friday along with Hollande, Renzi, May and Rajoy.

Europe is still struggling with the aftershock. The chattering classes inside the Beltway [in Washington], European chancelleries and the Brussels bubble simply could not believe that Trump, someone with no previous political experience, could defeat a seasoned pro like Clinton. But he did and we will all have to manage the consequences, especially in foreign and security policy.

The initial reaction of EU leaders was a mix of incredulity and a bizarre attempt to pretend it was business as usual.

The congratulatory letter of Tusk and Juncker spoke of continuing to work together on TTIP, climate change and Russia – all issues likely to be consigned to the dustbin by the new occupant of the White House.

This was then followed by another letter a few hours later suggesting that our links were "strong, instinctive, spiritual and biological". It is quite likely that Trump has never heard of the EU let alone consider that he shares spiritual ties with Brussels.

Juncker then unnecessarily insulted Trump by stating the EU would have to wait two years until Trump discovered how it worked. Nice piece of diplomacy!

If the EU wants to get the attention of Trump, it will have to earn it, first and foremost by taking more responsibility for its own security. Trump’s campaign threat to stop defending Nato members unless they pulled their weight struck a chord with American voters and Congress.

Head scratching in Asia

Europe has had many warnings from American leaders over the years (remember Bob Gates?) that it was high time to get its act together on security.

Given what Europeans spend on defence and the number of men and women in uniform, it should be able to defend itself. A modest Franco-German initiative to boost defence cooperation should now be given greater urgency at next month’s European Council.

Trump’s views on how to deal with Russia, Syria, Iran, climate change and international trade are seriously at odds with Europe.

EU leaders are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think it will be business as usual.

What if Trump were to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, scrap the Iran deal and declare the Paris climate agreement null and void?

What if he slapped 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports in breach of WTO rules? How should Europe react?

Managing these differences will be a major challenge for transatlantic partners in coming months.

But it is not just European allies who will be worried about the election outcome.

Trump made some startling comments in the campaign about reducing or abrogating US treaty commitments to Japan and South Korea unless these long-standing allies paid more.

If Tokyo or Seoul were to develop nuclear weapons as a consequence, so be it. So be it? We have never had a US president call into question long-standing alliances or talk glibly about states getting their hands on nuclear weapons.

How would China react to Japan or Korea getting their hands on nuclear weapons? How should the EU react?

Trump is also likely to ditch the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade deal that Obama hoped would be part of his legacy. Most Asians will take this move as an indication that the pivot to Asia is dead. But this again will have consequences for Europe. Is the EU ready to push ahead with its own stalled FTAs with Japan and other Asian partners?

Who is team Trump?

As regards the Middle East, Trump’s approach is to "bomb the shit out of all terrorists", an approach similar to Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drug dealers.

He has not made any critical remarks about Israel’s settlement policy, something the EU opposes, and has favoured moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What if he were to make a deal with Russia on Syria? How should the EU respond?

With such simplistic views and no foreign policy experience, how will Trump cope? He cannot call on 100 most talented Republican foreign policy professionals as they came out deriding his views and refusing to serve under him. Those who are likely to serve - such as John Bolton - are scary neo-cons.

This will make it very difficult for Europeans to influence Trump’s foreign policy.

Trump in any case will certainly pay more attention to national capitals than to Brussels. He welcomed Brexit, and Nigel Farage was the first European politician to meet Trump at the weekend. Although Theresa May and Boris Johnson have been critical of Trump, they will make a big effort to squeeze some juice out of the fading special relationship.

Trump has said the UK will certainly not be at the back of the queue for a new post-Brexit trade deal.

It is difficult to imaging Merkel or Hollande achieving a rapport with Trump. But Le Pen or Orban would be welcomed with open arms.

Europe will thus not be at the top of Trump’s in-tray. He will certainly not make Brussels his first overseas trip. A stop en route to the next G20 in Germany, however, might be more feasible.

There is no-one in his entourage who knows anything about the EU. But if he starts to mess with international trade agreements and breaks WTO rules then he may have to take a quick course in EU powers in the trade field and competition policy.

And the EU will have to stand up to Trump if he seeks to tear up the agreements on Iran and climate change.

Europe and Asia are in for a very bumpy ride with Donald J. Trump in the White House. Like Putin, Trump seems to respect strength. Time, surely, for the EU to demonstrate that it can do more than play around with its soft power toys.

Fraser Cameron is the director of the EU-Asia Centre and a senior adviser with Cambre Associates.

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