Under President Donald Trump, Europeans must prepare for some turbulent times in trans-Atlantic relations. The president has made clear his concerns about the European Union -- he is a vocal supporter of Brexit and believes that others will leave, especially in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis. In his New York Times interview, he even charged the E.U. with using environmental regulations to impede one of his developments in Ireland.
During their confirmation hearings, the incoming secretaries of state and defense were cautious about recent Russian behavior, and pledged continuing U.S. support for NATO. And while the president repeated that NATO was “obsolete,” his views are malleable. As seen on the issue of torture, his advisers will have much influence in shaping the new president’s worldview. But few if any of these advisers have any deep expertise on Europe and particularly not on the European Union. One think tank close to the transition – the Heritage Foundation – is well known for strong skepticism toward European integration. The president-elect gets his information about the E.U. from Nigel Farage.
The E.U. should expect Washington to be much more critical of the European project. The commitment to NATO will likely remain strong, especially as European defense budgets increase. But the E.U. may find the new administration focused exclusively on bilateral relations with key national governments, even seeking to undermine the current level of integration. Faced with this new reality, Europe – and especially the E.U.-27 – should prepare for the following:
Firstly, what if the United States becomes an advocate for Britain in the Brexit negotiations? Given the president’s enthusiasm for Mr. Farage and Brexit generally, he might go further than simply promising an early trade deal to the British government. Would the new administration press the E.U.-27 for better terms for Britain? Would separate promises be made to the Poles, Czechs or others for a softer line on freedom of movement? Could Washington split the E.U.-27?
Next, should the E.U. just let TTIP – or even the idea of a trans-Atlantic trade accord – die an unnoticed death? Or should it try to revive some sort of deal? While the administration is keen on a U.S.-U.K. accord, a deal with the E.U. may be more achievable, given the negotiations that have already been done. The E.U. deal may even lay the groundwork for the smaller U.S.-U.K. arrangement. The president-elect did not mention TTIP and most of his criticisms of trade do not apply to U.S.-E.U. economic flows.
Thirdly, if President Trump shows signs of weakening sanctions imposed on Russia because of its behavior in Ukraine, should the E.U. simply do what everyone expects and abandon its own sanctions? Or can it make those sanctions hold? The sanctions are tied to legal conditions – reversal of the annexation of Crimea and implementation of the Minsk accord. To abandon the sanctions without those conditions fulfilled would contravene the E.U.’s commitment to the rule of law. There should be little worry about U.S. firms taking over the European market in Russia, given the stunted U.S.-Russia economic ties. Mr. Putin will view the abandonment of E.U. sanctions as a sign of weakness that will color E.U.-Russia relations for some time to come.
Further, should Europe start working now to save the Iran deal? Unlike on Russia sanctions, President Trump will face little congressional opposition if he decides to abandon the multilateral deal that has led Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. could also further tighten restraints on financial institutions, killing the possibility of greater E.U.-Iran commerce. Should Europe take an active role in educating the new administration about the consequences of abandoning the deal? This was one of the high points of cooperation between Europe and the Obama administration – will Europe now make its continuation a priority with the Trump administration.
Finally, how can Europe, and especially the E.U., connect effectively with the new administration? Since the election, we have seen a parade of foreign leaders reach out to the new team. Some have been successful in gaining access to the inner Trump circle, and others less so. But one thing his cabinet selections tell us: Mr. Trump is most comfortable with business leaders. Europe has its own share of such leaders and should not be shy about using them. To start, the CEOs of major European companies that have invested in the U.S. should make clear how many jobs they support – Siemens, with 50,000 U.S. employees and Ikea with 13,000 are just two examples. They should explain how they and U.S. companies benefit from an integrated European market rather than 28 small markets. And they should make clear how important it is for the U.S. and Europe to work together in the global economy. Of course, the top political leaders of the E.U.-27 will also seek meetings with the new president, and those that do should speak up for the union, perhaps as a conglomerate that gives Europe global reach.
Under the best of circumstances, the E.U. faces challenges with new U.S. administration, most of whom need to be convinced of the union’s usefulness. This administration will be even tougher, starting with a euroskeptic tinge. Europe should be prepared for this test.
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