PARIS – Beyond his bizarre, intemperate tweeting, the challenge that US President Donald Trump poses for Europe is real, but not always easily defined. There are differences between what Trump says, what his administration does, and what Congress makes him do. In fact, just last week, Trump was given no choice but to sign a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia that he had stridently opposed.
Moreover, the European Union’s capacity for collective action varies from issue to issue. Europe can come together on soft-power issues such as trade and climate; but its security and defense is largely dependent on the Franco-German relationship, which has never been more important than it is today.
Trump launched an offensive against multilateral trade as soon as he took office. He abandoned the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and withdrew the United States from negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU, which would have created a vast North Atlantic common market. This has put the EU on guard, because it is more dependent than the US on trade, and especially on the World Trade Organization’s Dispute Settlement Body, which the Trump administration may try to bypass.
Perhaps owing to Trump’s anti-trade agenda, the EU recently concluded a new trade agreement with Japan much faster than many had expected; and it has shown a willingness to retaliate if the US enacts measures to protect the domestic steel industry.
Trump seems to have abandoned earlier proposals for a border adjustment tax, and he may not follow through on all of his protectionist rhetoric. But even barring the worst-case scenario, Europe will remain in a state of deep uncertainty. After all, EU policymakers don’t know if they should put more stock in the heated rhetoric of Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, or in the more conciliatory words of Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs executive now leading the US National Economic Council.
With Trump obsessing over secondary issues such as tariffs and deficits, it will be all but impossible for the US and Europe to establish new global trade norms. But the EU does still have cards to play on other issues, such as climate change. For starters, it will continue to lead the rest of the G20 in implementing the Paris climate agreement, now that Trump has withdrawn the US from that accord. And it can work with the many US cities, states, and civil-society groups that remain committed to fighting climate change.
The EU also has an opportunity to become a global renewable-energy leader. To succeed, however, it will need to integrate the European energy market by harmonizing national-level policies. Without a common strategy for pricing carbon, the EU will not reach its goal of zero net emissions by 2050.
Things are not as clear-cut on the security front, especially given the large gaps between the Trump administration’s rhetoric and facts on the ground. For example, while Trump has expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, he did not reverse a decision by his predecessor, Barack Obama, to deploy US forces in Poland and the Baltic countries under the auspices of NATO. And now that the US Congress has stepped in, Trump can no longer unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia. Moreover, the US State Department seems to want to reengage with Ukraine, even if that means circumventing certain members of the “Normandy format,” namely France and Germany.
Unfortunately, the lack of any coherent US policy on Russia or Europe is creating new uncertainties. For example, many in Germany are worried about US sanctions targeting the Russian energy sector, which could affect Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that bypasses Ukraine to deliver natural gas directly from Russia to Germany. At the same time, Poland, long wary of Russian attempts to forge an energy alliance with Germany, has welcomed the new sanctions.
This points to a growing risk: rather than sign on to a common European position vis-à-vis the US, individual EU member states could decide to go it alone. Whether or not they do will likely depend on the strength of the Franco-German alliance, which has long been the engine driving European integration.
France has less reason than Germany to worry about US disengagement. With the US and British governments both mired in chaos, France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, will have significantly more diplomatic influence in Africa and the Middle East. French President Emmanuel Macron has not forgotten that, in 2013, Obama humiliated France by unilaterally abandoning a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Accordingly, Macron has already reserved the right to intervene in Syria if Bashar al-Assad’s regime uses chemical weapons again.
Germany’s geostrategic situation is more precarious, notwithstanding its strong economic position. The twin pillars of German security are NATO’s collective-defense guarantee and a stable relationship with Russia. Now, both are in jeopardy, as is Germany’s relationship with Poland’s increasingly illiberal government.
Germany must finally reckon with the idea of European strategic autonomy, which France openly promotes. Of course, strategic autonomy, long a taboo in Germany, will have to develop incrementally, through joint Franco-German military programs.
The French and German governments recently decided to move ahead on a plan jointly to develop a new fighter jet, which is certainly a good first step. But one should not expect to see any spectacular cooperative achievements in the immediate future. In 2018, Germany will need to update its combat aircraft for the next seven years. Will it purchase French Rafale jets, in the name of European solidarity; or will it opt for American F-35s from its traditional security guarantor?
Trump has unwittingly created real opportunities for Europe, which is slowly realizing that it can no longer trust the US unconditionally. But to come together effectively in the face of a common threat, Europeans will first have to overcome their nationalist – or, in Germany’s case, anti-militarist – instincts.