Shadow Government

Trump’s War on Europe Is Revving Up

It was only a matter of time until the U.S. president's anti-EU views did damage.

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after a meeting with EU officials in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after a meeting with EU officials in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (THIERRY CHARLIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office just over a year ago, America’s relationship with the European Union has been little more than an afterthought. That shouldn’t be surprising. Trump’s views toward the EU have been consistently negative for years. During the presidential campaign he made several disparaging remarks about the EU, including that it was created to “beat the United States when it comes to making money.” He also openly supported Brexit. Making matters worse, Trump has forged a close relationship with Nigel Farage, the far-right, anti-immigration, anti-establishment leader of the U.K. Independence Party who has served as Trump’s tutor on the EU since late 2016. Despite Trump’s negatives views of the EU, though, it wasn’t clear over the past year exactly how those views would play out in terms of actual policies.

Until now. In recent days, Trump has launched a two-front war with the European Union.

At first, it appeared that the Trump administration’s policy toward the EU would simply be one of benign neglect. The president has yet to appoint an ambassador to the EU, and there are no signs that anyone at the White House is in a rush to change that. The EU also barely secured mentions in the various strategy documents the administration has been rolling out in recent months. In the National Security Strategy, the U.S. relationship with the European Union is cited only once in the context of “ensuring fair and reciprocal trade practices,” and “eliminating barriers to growth.” Similarly, in his sole speech on Europe, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly mentioned the EU. In fact, America’s multibillion-dollar trade relationship with the EU, long the cornerstone of our relationship with Europe, doesn’t appear anywhere in that speech.

But this week, Trump announced he would place 25 percent tariffs on steel and 10 percent tariffs on aluminum imports. The move wasn’t directed specifically at Europe, as the United States imports steel and aluminum from several countries around the world. But that didn’t ease the shock of European policymakers who were stunned last Friday (like many of Trump’s own advisors and Congress) when Trump first mentioned that he was going to take actionable steps toward such a protectionist agenda.

Given the magnitude and importance of the United States’ trade relationship with Europe, one would assume that the president would create a special carve out for America’s closest allies. Trump made no mention of such an arrangement for Europe although the White House will create exemptions for Canada and Mexico.

EU officials are furious and have threatened retaliation through their own set of import tariffs. That obviously hasn’t sat well with the President who tweeted just days ago: “If the E.U. wants to further increase their already massive tariffs and barriers on U.S. companies doing business there, we will simply apply a tax on their cars which freely pour into the U.S.” Many are now predicting that the United States is on the verge of starting a trade war with Europe — and they might be right.

Unfortunately, trade isn’t the only area where the Trump administration is directly challenging the EU. The president and his advisors have also decided to take a hostile stance toward recent EU efforts to strengthen defense cooperation and integration across the Continent. This is an odd reaction given that over that past year Trump’s main criticism of Europe is that it shirks defense spending and burden-sharing. To be sure, the United States has admittedly had a long, complicated past with European defense. Ever since Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac signed the Saint-Malo declaration in 1998, which recognized the need for Europe to develop autonomous, credible military forces, American presidents from Clinton to Bush to Obama have warned about unnecessary duplication with the NATO alliance.

But over time, even the strongest EU skeptics have come to realize two things. First, EU ambitions aren’t that great. Europeans aren’t trying to build an EU army. Second, to the extent that the EU makes progress on strengthening its defense forces, those efforts will ultimately benefit both the EU and NATO. That’s why the Trump administration’s approach toward the EU is so counterintuitive and counterproductive.

Whether it’s on trade policy or security policy, America needs a strong, economically sound, and capable Europe with close ties to the United States. Collectively, Europe and the United States face a litany of common challenges from Russian efforts to undermine Western democracies to instability across the Middle East to the need to prepare for the post-manufacturing economy. To effectively address these challenges, the United States and Europe need to act together. Doing so becomes increasingly difficult when the two continents are engaged in a trade war or when the Unite States pushes back on European efforts to build the exact capabilities we claim they lack. The Trump administration needs an EU policy (and an ambassador to match) that can strengthen, not undermine, our relationship with Europe. It’s an imperfect relationship but it’s the best one we’ve got.

Julianne ("Julie") Smith is director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining CNAS, she served as the deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2012 to 2013. Before going to the White House, she served as the principal director for European/NATO policy at the Pentagon. Smith lives in Washington with her husband and two children. Smith is a co-editor of Shadow Government. @Julie_C_Smith
Rachel Rizzo is the research associate for the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security

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