Ghost of US leader hangs over EU feast

’Un­pre­dictable’ US leader was all the talk at sum­mit

The Irish Times - - World News - Patrick Smyth in Sofia

Don­ald Trump was the ghost at the feast. As EU lead­ers munched their way through the shop­ska salad and other Bul­gar­ian fare – surely some rakia was downed – Trump’s “capri­cious” sauce was served with each course.

In scripted re­marks yes­ter­day ahead of the EU-Western Balkans sum­mit, Euro­pean Coun­cil pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk had made sure ob­servers un­der­stood what was at stake, de­nounc­ing the “capri­cious as­sertive­ness of the Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion”, adding: “Look­ing at the lat­est de­ci­sions of Pres­i­dent Trump some­one could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies?”

He re­turned to the theme last night at the fi­nal press con­fer­ence when he ob­served that “un­pre­dictabil­ity” was not a prob­lem: “The prob­lem is if your clos­est friend is un­pre­dictable.”

He agreed with the US pres­i­dent that “un­pre­dictabil­ity is a use­ful tool in pol­i­tics – but only in deal­ing with an en­emy”.

The EU faced the most se­ri­ous break­down in mem­ory in its re­la­tions with its old ally, Tusk warned; it was chal­lenge that would test the met­tle of EU self-reliance.

There is the po­ten­tial trade war over steel and alu­minium tar­iffs, the US aban­don­ment of the Iran nu­clear deal and the mov­ing of its em­bassy to Jerusalem with the bloody events in Gaza that it has trig­gered, each enough to eclipse the os­ten­si­ble pur­pose of this sum­mit – bring­ing the six states of the western Balkans closer to the EU.

En­large­ment

The sum­mit’s fi­nal dec­la­ra­tion reaf­firmed “its un­equiv­o­cal sup­port for the Euro­pean perspective of the western Balkans”, a for­mula un­der­stood to mean “en­large­ment” but coyly re­fus­ing to say it. Tusk was, how­ever, pulling no punches – while no dates could be given, their meet­ing was “no sub­sti­tute for en­large­ment, but about a way to use the time be­tween to­day and to­mor­row wisely”.

There was “no fu­ture for the western Balkans, other than the EU,” he in­sisted.

Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel de­scribed the meet­ing as a step to­wards en­large­ment.

In ad­di­tion to fund­ing new trans­port and elec­tric­ity links and a large in­crease in Eras­mus grants for stu­dents to study in the EU, the lead­ers wel­comed the “part­ners’ com­mit­ment to the pri­macy of democ­racy and the rule of law, es­pe­cially the fight against cor­rup­tion and or­gan­ised crime, good gover­nance, as well as re­spect for hu­man rights and rights of per­sons be­long­ing to mi­nori­ties”.

Euro­pean Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker at the din­ner on Wed­nes­day night de­scribed the state of play in re­cent talks be­tween trade com­mis­sioner Ce­cilia Malm­ström and her US coun­ter­part, Wil­bur Ross.

The lat­ter is re­ported to have, as one EU source put it, “naively” sug­gested he as­sist dis­cus­sions by at­tend­ing the lead­ers’ din­ner, an of­fer po­litely de­clined.

With the UK set to be ex­cluded from the EU’s top ta­ble when it leaves the union, there was a pe­cu­liar irony in Ross’s sug­ges­tion.

Trade lib­er­al­i­sa­tion

Last night Tusk said the EU was will­ing to en­ter dis­cus­sions with the US on trade lib­er­al­i­sa­tion, but “only if the US de­cides on un­lim­ited ex­emp­tions for the EU from steel and alu­minium tar­iffs”.

“We can’t have a sit­u­a­tion where the EU is mak­ing con­ces­sions ev­ery six months in or­der to have a tem­po­rary ex­emp­tion con­tinue. That isn’t a sus­tain­able path for us,” Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar said.

The lead­ers had dis­cussed a broad agenda for such dis­cus­sions: a scop­ing ex­er­cise to elim­i­nate re­cip­ro­cal tar­iffs on in­dus­trial prod­ucts, lib­er­al­is­ing of gov­ern­ment pro­cure­ment, the “en­ergy re­la­tion­ship” notably of liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas, vol­un­tary reg­u­la­tory co-op­er­a­tion on prod­uct safety rules and WTO re­form.

Not that there is any link be­tween such dis­cus­sions and the US trade threat – the EU in­sists it is not to be seen as suc­cumb­ing to US pres­sures. “We will not ne­go­ti­ate with the sword of Damo­cles hang­ing over our heads,” Juncker said last night.

Any more than we are ex­pected to ac­cept the fic­tion that the EU is not also suc­cumb­ing to US pres­sure in sug­gest­ing to the US its will­ing­ness to join in pres­suris­ing Iran on its bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gramme and re­gional mil­i­tary ad­ven­tures. No, no, these are quite un­re­lated issues. . .

The EU faced the most se­ri­ous break­down in mem­ory in its re­la­tions with its old ally, Tusk warned; it was chal­lenge that would test EU self-reliance

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