What does Donald Trump really think about the European Union?
In the past, he has supported the extreme-right’s Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential election, advocated slapping hefty trade tariffs on German imports, and threatened to undermine the EU with bilateral trade deals with individual nations.
But Trump has developed a reputation for agreeing with his most recent interlocutor: he isn’t afraid to change his mind.
Though he is still seen as much more of a threat to the EU than former President Barack Obama ever was, more recently he seems to have softened. He has relented in his anti-NATO rhetoric, and even congratulated Emmanuel Macron on his election victory last Sunday.
So, with Trump at the helm, how have US-European relations changed? Is Angela Merkel the new public enemy number one? And what does the United States’ new, amorphous relationship with Europe mean for the future of the EU?
We spoke to Nicole Bacharan, a historian and political scientist specialising in American politics and Franco-American relations, about how Trump views Europe, how the EU can take advantage of his Presidency, Brexit, and what – if anything – Europe can learn from the US.
TPE We have witnessed a radical change in the US’ attitude towards Europe since Mr. Trump came to power. What makes Europe less relevant and desirable in the new American government’s eyes?
NB I don’t think it is less relevant, even if Donald Trump might wish it to be that way. He seems to be aware that Germany is important. He congratulated Emmanuel Macron on his election but probably hardly knows anything about France. He identified the forces behind Brexit or Marine Le Pen’s National Front as populist, nationalist movements close to his own views. He wished for a break up of the European Union, but it seems that he is coming around. Same with NATO: at first he said it was obsolete, and now he has gone back on that statement – NATO is “modern” again. Other presidents have had similar changes of heart, but in a less exaggerated, extreme, and vulgar way.
Relations with Europe were smooth and efficient during the Obama administration.
Barack Obama certainly knew that Europe was relevant, but as he considered everything to be going smoothly, he did not believe that it required special attention. There was real competition with the US on trade issues, which is a normal, healthy thing. But overall, whether it was about police work, anti-terrorism, military cooperation, control cooperation, or political cooperation, relations with Europe were smooth and efficient during the Obama administration.
So at first Obama himself showed little personal interest in Europe. He missed a few important moments, such as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall or the Paris Charlie Hebdo rally.
Eventually, however, he came to see the importance of Europe, and did not take it for granted. He urged against Brexit, he supported German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and after the end of his presidency, he supported Emmanuel Macron, who is a true pro-European. What is happening between Europe and Donald Trump is not of the same nature, as he looks down on Europe and NATO. But eventually, facts and reality will catch up with him and he will start to see that there are a limited number of democracies in the world, and that they need each other and have common interests.
So I think Europe is still relevant, even if Donald Trump shows little interest.
TPE Should Europe fear military and diplomatic disengagement from the USA?
NB If it happens, yes, it is something to fear. Europe is vulnerable, particularly on its Eastern borders. I am quite convinced Russia is an aggressive power, pushing with relative impunity as much as they can. Hence why Georgia, the Ukraine, and the Baltic states are so concerned.
The Russians have conducted military flying exercises over the North Sea – sometimes as far as Brittany –, which demonstrates their antagonistic attitude. It is vital for the US to have a military presence in Europe, and so far, it has been a constant: in the last days of the Obama administration, a new batch of American troops were posted in Poland.
As for Donald Trump, he is conducting a cost analysis of alliances, assessing their different costs and the extent of their usefulness. Being upset at the Europeans for not paying enough for their own defence is an old grievance for the United States, and it’s understandable. We heard the same thing from Barack Obama and George Bush, but alliances are not only about money.
They are also about mutual interests – like global stability – and if Donald Trump does not look beyond this cost analysis, it will be very dangerous for Europe. Nothing is predictable with this administration. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be more of a moderate in this respect, but he is certainly focussing on the financial aspects of the alliance.
On the other hand, we can see that Donald Trump is very excited about military power and the Pentagon’s formidable arsenal. I really do not know how it will play out. He is coming to Europe at the end of this month for the NATO summit as well as the G7. This is a step in the right direction because initially it was unclear whether or not he would attend.
Maybe the Europeans can nudge him towards a more stable military and diplomatic engagement, but it is by no means a sure thing. And if the US were to disengage, it would be very dangerous, not only for Europe, but also for the global stability.
TPE Do you think the Baltic states are at risk of being invaded?
NB I think that if left on their own, they are at risk of a Ukraine-Georgia situation: not a full invasion, but a low level conflict with the Russians encroaching further onto their territories. The Baltic states are very worried: they pay their full dues to NATO – a total of 2% of their GDP – but they are small economies, and have reasons to be scared.
TPE Could such disengagement be an opportunity for Europe to make progress with its common foreign and security policies and, more broadly, its unification process?
NB It could be. It should be. That would be the most reasonable thing to do. European countries should closely study their military budgets, cut out all that is redundant, and develop their common capabilities.
The election of Emmanuel Macron is most definitely an opportunity. The promises he made to work closely with Germany were very favourably received. There was such relief in Germany after his election: they seem willing to help him, especially economically. So maybe, if France and Germany kick on with foreign and security policy, more countries in the EU could follow, and US disengagement could become an opportunity.
The US administration will feel more and more besieged, soon they will start to turn on themselves.
TPE Can the UK rely on the special relationship with the USA to free itself from the European Union and come back stronger after Brexit?
NB I don’t think so. Despite appearances, I don’t think anybody can rely on the United States for anything right now, unfortunately. And this isn’t going to improve: the administration is so vulnerable what with all the investigations, accusations of corruption, and allegations of abuse of power. My understanding, and I may be wrong there, is that the administration will feel more and more besieged, and soon they will start to turn on themselves. So the UK can’t count on much from the United States.
Obviously, it appears that disentangling the UK from the European Union is going to be such a tedious, painful, and costly process. Marine Le Pen has repeated that despite everybody predicting armageddon after Brexit, the British economy is doing well. But Brexit hasn’t happened yet! When it truly does, we have no idea what it will look like for Britain.
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TPE Plus there has been a 10% decrease on the UK exchange rate, so it is incorrect to claim that there has been no harm done to the British economy so far…
NB Absolutely. And it’s going to get worse.
TPE Are there American federal institutions, laws or practices that the Europeans could draw on or learn from in their project of refounding Europe?
I think they could truly learn from the early days of the American Republic. After the Revolution and independence, for quite a few years, there was no American Constitution as we know it. Instead, there was only the Articles of Confederation, which were very loose, had few government institutions, and a very weak federal government. It didn’t work, especially in terms of defending trade and monetary interests.
Studying the early days of the American Republic would certainly be very helpful for the European Union.
At the time, the struggle was between the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton was very aware of the overall weakness, and recognised the need for a stronger federal government and a central bank. A government that would have, and still has today, the power to raise taxes all over the federal territory and to unify federal tax laws and centralise power. That is what the EU lacks today.
The European executive power lacks the necessary tools to make it work, especially when it comes to a centralised and unifying taxing system within the Euro zone. Studying the early days of the American Republic would certainly be very helpful for the European Union, and beyond that, the US has a strong Constitution that is sometimes frustrating because of its rigidity, but it prevents any drastic or fast change. Hence why Donald Trump seems so frustrated.
TPE How viable or inspirational do you believe the Federalist dream of a ‘United States of Europe’ is?
NB It’s very inspirational to me personally, but I doubt it fits the mood of the time! It seems to me that France, Germany, and other countries should be very cautious while gathering together around a common plan. They need to really improve the way they “sell” Europe to the European people.
The anti-Europe propaganda we heard during the French elections, with this absurd rule of giving the same amount of time to every single 11 candidates, was shameful. 8 of the 11 – some of them who represented a very small section of the electorate – continually slandered the European Union with all kinds of inaccuracies and lies. I’m not saying that people who do not want the European Union should not have a voice, but it was so unbalanced, unchecked, and destructive, in so many ways.
The EU needs to better explain the benefits that it gives to many people and institutions in its member states. There is obviously a lot of work to do to improve the way the EU functions. It is true that there are too many rules, that it is too complicated, bureaucratic, and intrusive. EU social policy also needs to be improved if we want European societies to progress.
So although the federalist dream of a ‘United States of Europe’ is very inspirational to me and to people like me, I think there is a lot of work to do before trying to promote that dream again.
TPE Do Trump’s hostilities towards Germany and Angela Merkel, and the mutual threats of trade tariffs, show that we are living in a ‘post-Western’ society?
NB We are certainly verging on a post-Western society. It has not happened yet because Donald Trump does not even represent his own party. We are seeing that despite his aggressive rhetoric towards Canada and towards Mexico, little has happened so far. Again, reality has a way of imposing itself.
The same applies to China. Throughout his campaign, and even at his inauguration, all talk about China was that they were manipulating currency. Yet all of a sudden, China is apparently no longer a currency manipulator. As a matter of fact, it is, but Donald Trump isn’t talking about it anymore because he was told – or perhaps he realised – that it was counterproductive.
There is no way he can work closely with Angela Merkel. They are so different, and even if Wolfgang Schaüble [German finance minister] was the next Chancellor, the relationship wouldn’t be very easy with Germany.
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But reality will kick in again, Germany is an essential partner, you can’t do anything without them in the West. So, with mutual threats of trade tariffs, I think we were headed for Armageddon had Marine Le Pen [extreme right presidential candidate] or Jean Luc Mélenchon [far-left presidential candidate] been elected in France. But with a strong Franco-German axis, this is still very much a Western society: the Western world. I think we’ve dodged a bullet.
We bought some time, but I don’t know how much.
We are verging on a post-Western society.
TPE Finally, as in the recent TV debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, you have carte blanche to talk about a European subject close to your heart
NB I don’t know if it’s relevant to this interview in particular, but I think it’s relevant to Europe and the Transatlantic relations. I believe we should guard ourselves from forgetting where we come from. My grandfather fought in WW1, my mother was in the resistance as a teenager, and when I hear talk of nationalism – including economic nationalism – and of border disputes, I am convinced that we are entering into a dangerous debate.
People like Donald Trump are very dangerous because they do not understand or care about the hazardous implications these discourses create, and I am glad there are other people in France, in Germany, and in other European countries who realise this.
Nationalism in Europe has lead to war many times in our history. The bottom line is that we need a united Europe to protect peace and build a better economy.