This past week has been disastrous for US-EU relations, culminating with US President Donald Trump labelling the European Union a “foe” of the US. I think it’s hard to spin events positively despite Trump’s alleged successes in Brussels earlier. Some comments on what this means for the EU follow below.
Donald Trump’s promotional tactics on NATO spending
Now, last week I asked whether the Germans and the French had acquiesced to Trump’s bullying over NATO military expenditures. And the apparent answer was, yes, they had made some sort of commitment to increase military spending. That’s what I believed in part due to statements Donald Trump made at the tail end of his NATO visit.
But subsequently it became apparent that the increases may well have been the ones already planned as a result of NATO negotiations during the Obama Administration.
Look at this Thursday tweet about a Reuters headline:
This is NO CHANGE from Spain’s previous defense spending commitment https://t.co/5DYwZTp8TV
— Edward Harrison (@edwardnh) July 12, 2018
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez simply reiterated his country’s goal of raising defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2024, the NATO-agreed goal from the Obama era. And French President Emmanuel Macron specifically denied having made any changes to France’s planned future military outlays.
So Trump is lying. Basically, he’s playing real estate promoter, hyping things to the point of incredulity. Where at first it seemed his bullying may have won some concessions, it is now more likely that Trump is spinning the outcome in the hopes that reality will catch up with his spin or that people will simply forget this issue.
The European Union as a “foe” of the United States
Perhaps people will forget the NATO defense spending issue. Since the NATO summit, Trump has gone to the UK, where he undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiation tactics by calling them into question in a taped interview (and then lying about it). And when questioned about American adversaries on the eve of his next trip to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, he called the EU a “foe”.
Well, I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe. Russia is foe in certain respects. China is a foe economically, certainly they are a foe. But that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive,” Mr. Trump said at his golf club in Turnberry, Scotland.
“I respect the leaders of those countries. But, in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills,” he added.
Regardless of whether you think this specific incident is small potatoes, it is the culmination of a series of negative events that has the Germans changing policy.
Here’s the German foreign minister:
“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” Heiko Maas told the Funke newspaper group.
“To maintain our partnership with the USA we must readjust it. The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe.”
Maas said Europe “must not let itself be divided”, however “sharp the verbal attacks and absurd the tweets may be”.
So the aim then is to shift away from the US toward the EU. That’s a big deal.
What does shifting away from the Transatlantic Partnership mean?
We don’t know how serious this is yet. Is Maas floating a trial balloon that his chancellor Angela Merkel is fully behind? And if the Germans do shift their priorities, would they do so on a temporary basis, waiting for Trump to leave office?
I anticipated this outcome a few days ago, tweeting:
I see Trump as a gift to EU politicians because it makes German politicians of all stripes much more committed to Europe. When they see where Trump is headed, mainstream German parties realize they need the EU
— Edward Harrison (@edwardnh) July 12, 2018
My sense from following what’s happening in Germany and in Europe in general is that the shift is real and some of it will be permanent. From an EU perspective, that matters for Italy and other countries that are likely to suffer in the next cyclical downturn. A Germany more committed to the EU than ever for strategic reasons is less likely to engage in the brinkmanship it did with Greece a few years back. And this is especially true given the size of the Italian economy as a part of the Eurozone.
The conclusion I come to, then, is that Trump’s belief in the US’s strategic advantage as a sole superpower is misplaced. His brinkmanship is alienating allies and eroding American soft power. As a result, American allies are turning away from the US as the center of the Western military and economic partnership. And in the long run, that’s bad for the US but not necessarily bad for the EU.