The EU-US relationship: A challenging time

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: July 07, 2018 21:09:32 | Updated: July 07, 2018 21:13:23

A very significant and open chasm has developed between the European Union (EU) and the US since President Donald Trump has assumed office. During his Presidential campaign he made a number of disparaging remarks about the EU and openly supported Brexit and developed a very close friendship with Nigel Farage of  the UK Independence Party (UKIP).  Last time he was in Europe to attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation  (NATO) meeting he shoved president of Montenegro to get to the front row during the photo session and the G7 Summit ended in acrimony and disagreement with the European allies. He will soon be on a trip to Europe again and during the trip EU-US trade relations, NATO and Russia will feature very prominently. Many observers believe that US-Europe relations are at their lowest point in recent times and getting worse. The increasingly soured relationship between the EU and the US is not simply centred around policy differences on the Paris Climate accord, the Iran Nuclear deal and NATO but many other important issues as well.

Trump's "America First" sloganeering has deeply disturbed EU leaders and now Trump's tariffs on steel and Aluminium have seriously strained the relationship. The EU, in response, has adopted what it has described as rebalancing measures in response to the US tariffs on steel and aluminium. EU Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malstrom clearly indicated that EU measures will be removed only when the US removes its tariffs. But President Trump upped the ante by declaring "the European Union is possibly as bad as China, just smaller'' pointing out to the 'car situation'.  In fact, Trump is now engaged in trade wars with almost every one including US's two closest neighbours, just not the EU alone. He is not showing any signs of pulling back. Instead, he has imposed additional tariffs on China and is calling for additional tariffs on imported cars, a move that will affect the EU, especially Germany, Japan and South Korea. The bottom line looks like that the Trump administration has taken a wrecking ball to dismantle the multilateral rules-based global trading system.

President Trump will also attend a meeting of G20 in Hamburg, Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already forged a common EU stance on trade and multilateralism ahead of G20 meeting amid Trump's attacks on her on Germany's trade surpluses. The G20 leaders' summit will even be less congenial for Trump as not only trade but also climate change will be at the forefront of the issues to be debated. He will go to Paris at the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron to celebrate the French National holiday marking Bastille Day.

However, Trade is not the only issue on which President Trump is directly challenging the EU. NATO, a product of the cold war-era collective defence organisation based on security partnership between the US and its European partners, is also under challenge from him. He views NATO as bad as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has repeatedly questioned the US's role in NATO. The Trump administration has sent a series of blunt letters to European allies blaming them not contributing their share to NATO upkeep. The letters are intended to put pressure on 28 NATO allies to significantly increase their defence expenditure ahead of the summit in Brussels on July 11-12. More ominously for European leaders, President Trump is also holding out a veiled threat if European allies do not spend more, the US might even do much less. Now many across the Atlantic view the Trump administration more as a security risk than a security guarantor.

NATO is, to put it mildly, fundamentally the US's most important alliance; but in essence NATO is America because it is an American project. As the role of traditional collective security of Europe has diminished in the post-cold war era, NATO's principal role has now become to advance US strategic interest around the world militarily where its European allies are to remain at beck and call to play a supporting role to that end. But the problem is that  the US military might have been overstretched with 800 plus bases around the world and faces multiple points of ongoing military engagements. It is reported that President Trump had even contemplated invading Venezuela in the recent past. Under these circumstances it is most unlikely he can really seriously undermine the NATO alliance. What he is in essence intending is to tweak it with increased financial burden-sharing by 28 European alliance partners to achieve US's own strategic objectives. Trump's all blustering against European alliance partners are designed to get a partial free ride on the back of the Europeans, in particular Germany. But there remain challenges for the EU-US security relationship in the future in view of the security interests of NATO (essentially the security interests of the US) and the EU are diverging making NATO much less relevant now to the EU.

But President Trump also has allies in Europe, particularly in Hungary and Poland which are now run by authoritarian regimes. The number of such regimes has been on the increase as tides of populism and authoritarianism are slowly getting a stronger grip on the European political landscape. Trump will visit Warsaw where he can expect a very warm welcome. In Poland he will also feel quite at home in the company of Duda. In Poland, along with Hungary, democracy is taking a backslide but that is  the least of his concerns. Trump also has other affinities with Duda and Orban with regard to climate change, antagonism towards the EU and hostility to the press.

During his trip to Europe, Trump will also meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and the meeting is scheduled to be held on July 16. Trump always said he wanted to get along with Putin. US National Security Adviser John Bolton has already been to Moscow to prepare the ground for the meeting but no agenda for the meeting has been made public. In Europe, Russia is increasingly being viewed as the major challenge, including security challenge, on a number of fronts which include Ukraine, efforts to undermine the Western system of democracy and its active role in the Middle-East. President Trump said that he intended to discuss about Ukraine and Syria with President Putin. Russia also indicated that it would be interested to discuss Crimea but only 'as an inseparable part of Russia'. It is reported that President Trump at the G7 summit in Quebec City expressed the view that Crimea probably belonged to Russia because people there speak Russian. But in the end Trump's meeting with Putin just  might replicate the meeting he had with Kim Jong-un to develop a relationship first and nothing of substance would come out the planned meeting.

President Trump's America First policy represents a major shift in the EU-US relationship because it represents a challenge to policies the EU pursues in relation to global multilateral system and its institutions. At the same time EU-US interests also on many fronts have been diverging.  Trump is not the first to believe that the alliance with EU should not  be the key strategic objective of the US; Obama's policies  had already  signalled to the direction of a gradual reduced commitment to that strategic alliance. Trump is not an accident of history but  a symptom of the hubris of America's global  power out to protect its self-interest however ruthless that might be. It is a desperate attempt to regain its global military and economic strength at a time of its terminal decline as a super power.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.


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