Trump: Goading and Testing the EU

Amid the public controversy over what have so far been largely symbolic gestures, the real intentions of the Trump presidency are only slowly beginning to emerge. The policy areas in which President Trump has chosen to act give Europe a clearer idea of his priorities. All in all, it seems that he might constitute much less of a problem for the EU than previously feared. This is particularly apparent in the two areas where the President’s personal preferences are decisive, namely foreign policy and trade policy. 

On foreign policy, Europe’s fears that Trump will go ‘soft’ on Russia may have been misplaced. After tough talk by the Secretaries of State and Defense during their confirmation hearings, one of the first acts of the new US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has been to condemn Russia for renewed fighting in Eastern Ukraine and to declare that sanctions will remain in place until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. This restores transatlantic unity on a key point and one on which there is some disagreement within the EU. On this point, at least, the much-feared alliance between European populists and the Trump administration has not materialised. What remains, of course, is the explicit pressure on European countries to spend more on their own defence. This is a longstanding and legitimate American request, even if it is now expressed in coarser terms than by previous administrations. In the slipstream of the political momentum created by Brexit, Trump’s comments on the obsolescence of NATO are pushing defence integration forward within the EU.

On trade policy, the early signs are also encouraging. Mexico and China have always been the preferred targets of Trump and the group around him that is now responsible for trade policy. Taking action against these countries would have a high pay-off in terms of domestic politics. But starting an outright trade war does not seem to be a priority. While the US has withdrawn from the big trans-pacific trade agreement (TTP), it has already offered something equivalent to Japan on a bilateral basis. On NAFTA, the administration has only announced a vague intention to renegotiate it, presumably mainly to be able to add ‘fair’ to ‘free’ trade. TTIP was not mentioned once in Trump’s campaign. It may well be that, a year or two from now, the White House ‘rediscovers’ the potential of a deal with the fair traders in Europe. The verbal attacks of policy advisors against an undervalued euro and the German trade surplus are more unequivocal, but not fundamentally different from views already expressed under the Obama administration.

What remains is a ‘POTUS’ who views the EU as a commercial rival and who does not support the overall aim of European integration. But this may well foster European unity around a different view of the world, coupled with the realisation that Europe needs to do more for its own defence. 

Some exponents of the new administration might continue with contemptible declarations of support for more countries leaving the EU.  But in reality, a US that puts ‘America first’ will do little to provide the UK with the market access and political umbrella this country will need after Brexit. Other, smaller European nations considering the Brexit example will be put on notice that outside the EU they will face a much tougher new world.

In past decades, the EU has served the US well as a forum for a unified approach to global issues. The EU should adopt a position of ‘strategic patience’ while the dust thrown up by the new US President settles and America’s strategic interests come into sharper focus for the White House.