Trump’s actions embolden nervous Europeans
Once deferential to Americans, EU confrontational
The Europeans have stopped trying to paper over their differences with President Donald Trump and the United States.
Traditionally respectful of U.S. leadership and mindful of America’s crucial role in European defence and global trade, European leaders normally repress or soften their criticism of U.S. presidents. They were generally not happy with president Barack Obama’s reluctance to involve the country in Libya and Syria, for example, or his tardiness to engage in what clearly became an international confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, but their criticism was quiet.
However, at the Group of 20 summit meeting of the world’s industrialized nations, public splits with Trump were the order of the day. Those rifts have been reflected in European domestic politics, too, from Britain and France to Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europe must “take our fate into our own hands” and stop “glossing over” clear differences.
The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, whose election has given renewed confidence to the Europeans, said bluntly: “Our world has never been so divided. Centrifugal forces have never been so powerful. Our common goods have never been so threatened.”
Macron, who waved his iPhone around during the meeting as a symbol of global trade, sharply criticized those like Trump who do not support multilateral institutions, but push nationalism instead.
Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union “have proved to be great unifiers for the European Union,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a renewed sense of confidence in Europe after the French election,” the apparent retreat of populism, an increase in economic growth and the prospect of Merkel’s re-election in September, he said.
Jan Techau, director of the Richard Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin, said: “There is now a more openly confrontational language with the United States. The European public is already outspoken about Trump, but now there is a more outspoken European leadership that won’t paper over these divisions anymore.”
If Europeans had previously felt constrained because of their security dependency, Techau said, there is now a feeling that “Trump has no constraints and will say anything, and now the Europeans feel they can do the same.” And, he said, “that means less respect for each other, and less mutual confidence.”
The climate debate in the meeting displayed how hard it is to isolate the richest, most powerful country in the world.
The Americans did try to persuade some countries, like Turkey and Poland, which Trump visited just before going to Hamburg, to move toward the U.S. position on climate, but they were rebuffed. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said later that his country might still be in play, depending on money. The U.S. withdrawal, he said, jeopardized compensation for developing countries to cope with compliance.
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, her authority weakened at home, also tried to balance Trump’s deep unpopularity in Britain with her need for U.S. support for the country’s exit from the European Union and for future trade deals. She was criticized for not making the climate issue one of her four priorities, and found comfort in Trump’s promise of a “very powerful” trade deal for a post-Brexit Britain that could be completed “very, very quickly.”
May expressed the hope that Trump might change his mind on Paris, though Merkel did not agree. And in the end, all wavering members sided with the 19, not the one.
The White House saw progress nonetheless. “The vast majority of the G20 supports the president’s vision for universal access to affordable and reliable energy, including finding ways to burn fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently,” said George David Banks, a special assistant to the president on international energy and environment and lead negotiator for climate change during the G20 conference.
On trade, there was more effort to find compromise, with previous G20 positions for free trade and against protectionism watered down to secure U.S. support. The communiqué cited, for the first time, the right of countries to protect their markets with “legitimate trade defence instruments” — wording that essentially gives Trump room to pursue his “America first” policy on issues like steel imports, where Washington is talking about restrictions based on “national security.”
The group agreed to accelerate work on a global review of steel production and sales, though any sanctions must meet the standards of the World Trade Organization.
In a general way, such open disagreements can undermine future coherence in times of crisis, Eswar Prasad, a professor of economics and trade at Cornell University, wrote in an email.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, speaks to Donald Trump at the G20 summit Saturday. The leaders’ final statement made it clear Trump’s focus on American self-interest often left him and his country in isolation.