Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the White House on Wednesday. While there are low expectations of a breakthrough in the U.S.-EU trade spat, Mr. Juncker’s broader objective is to try to calm wider transatlantic tensions that boiled over at the rancorous Group of Seven and NATO summits.
At the heart of this diplomatic discord is Mr. Trump’s disdain for the European Union, which goes significantly beyond that of any president since the bloc’s establishment. While he has concerns with Europe’s low levels of defence spending vis-a-vis Washington, it is on the economic front that the Brussels-based club is the deepest source of frustration for him with its large goods surplus with the United States.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump tweeted that: “Tariffs are the greatest! Either a country which has treated the United States unfairly on Trade negotiates a fair deal, or it gets hit with Tariffs. It’s as simple as that – and everybody’s talking. Remember, we are the ‘piggy bank’ that’s being robbed.”
This latest tweet builds on remarks last week from Mr. Trump when he remarkably declared, “I think the EU is a foe, what they do to us [the United States] in trade.” While some have dismissed this remark as just another spur-of-the-moment presidential outburst, Anthony Gardner – who served as U.S. ambassador to the European Union under Barack Obama – has warned that, “Europe wake-up; the U.S. wants to break-up the EU. Remember Belgium’s motto L’Union Fait la Force (Unity creates strength).”
The contrast between Mr. Trump, with his calls for more “Brexits” within the European Union, and U.S. policy at the start of the European integration process could not be starker. Embodied in John Kennedy’s 1962 Atlantic Partnership speech, the core U.S. view then was that a united Europe would make future wars on the continent less likely; create a stronger partner for the United States in meeting the challenges posed by the Soviet Union; and offer a more vibrant market for building transatlantic prosperity. Yet, U.S. attitudes gradually became more ambivalent as integration deepened, particularly in recent Republican administrations.
In the economic arena, for instance, the drive toward the European Single Market led to U.S. concerns about whether this would evolve into a “Fortress Europe.” Similarly, the creation of the European Monetary Union prompted worries about the dilution of U.S. primacy in the financial sector and macroeconomic policy. Moreover, in competition policy, the increasing assertiveness of the European Commission has raised U.S. concerns about EU overreach. Only last week, for example, Mr. Trump tweeted “The EU just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the US, but not for long!”
Before Mr. Trump, the administration of George W. Bush came closest to questioning the value of European integration. For instance, the controversy over the Iraq conflict saw Washington querying the benefits of EU collaboration in the security and defence arena. On the eve of the NATO defence review in 2003, U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld even drew a distinction between “old” and “new Europe” with the latter perceived as more favourable to U.S. interests.
However, while the Bush team eventually recognized the need to draw back from this approach, it appears Mr. Trump may not be willing to do the same and has indeed raised the rhetoric several notches. In so doing, one of the features of the President’s approach is an attempt to prise apart Germany and France, the traditional two motors of EU integration. In May, it is reported that Mr. Trump advised French President Emmanuel Macron, who he appears to hold in high regard, that France would be better to quit the European Union to get a better trade deal with Washington than the United States is willing to offer the European Union as a whole.
This remarkable suggestion comes in the context of the U.S. President’s denunciation of Germany, which he has called “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus with the United States. While the White House’s gambit in trying to split Germany and France is unlikely to succeed, it underlines how U.S. ambivalence about European integration has reached its apotheosis under Mr. Trump. The scale of the challenge facing Mr. Juncker is therefore huge, given that this is the first U.S. president who appears to want to not just weaken, but also splinter the Brussels-based club.