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Trump strategy in Europe: Divide and rule

US President Donald Trump and his deputy Mike Pence had both intended to be in Europe this week in a very rare double header visit. This underlines that while this administration is deeply sceptical about EU supranationalism and Brussels, it recognises US interests in the continent, both east and west.

Until Hurricane Dorian intervened, which means Mr Trump has elected to stay in the United States, he had planned to be in Poland for the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion that began World War II. And this would have been his second European trip in consecutive weeks after being in France in late August.

The Polish government has been much more welcoming of Mr Trump than many other counterparts in Western Europe, and the country is one of only four Nato members other than the United States that spends the 2 per cent target of GDP on defence.

Examples of the Warsaw administration's affinity with Mr Trump include its opposition to immigration, support for burning coal, and scepticism of multilateral institutions, and it finds itself in heated battles with the EU over refusal to resettle refugees and migrants, and opposition to judicial changes that Brussels says will weaken the rule of law.

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Mr Pence has now taken his place at those Polish ceremonies, and also travels to the United Kingdom and Ireland in coming days. Top of the agenda in Britain will be reassuring London of post-Brexit trade ties with Washington, and in Ireland (where the vice-president's grandfather was born) stressing US commitment to the Irish peace process two decades after the Good Friday agreement.

While Mr Trump and Mr Pence both value US ties with most European countries, the president in particular is deeply sceptical of the EU as an institution. While he has concerns with the continent's relatively low levels of defence spending vis-a-vis Washington, which ironically Brussels is leading the charge to reverse despite it not been an EU core competence, the economic front is the deepest source of frustration for the president with Europe's big goods surplus with the US. And later this year, Washington may launch new car tariffs against the continent.

This potential move comes in a context where Mr Trump and outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last summer agreed on a framework "trade deal" at the White House. The unexpected development, which has proved fragile and potentially prone to reversal, saw Washington and Brussels make a commitment to "work together towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies" on non-car goods.


Welcome as the immediate de-escalation of tensions was then, huge question marks remain over whether the ambitions will be realised. Part of the reason the accord could fall apart is the mercurial nature of the US president whose diplomatic disdain for the EU goes significantly beyond that of any of his predecessors.

Last year, Mr Trump 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 US Ambassador to the EU under Barack Obama - has warned that "Europe (needs to) wake up: the US wants to break up the EU... Remember Belgium's motto L-Union fait la force (Unity creates strength)".

The contrast here between Mr Trump, with his calls for more "Brexits" within the EU, and US policy at the start of the European integration process, could not be starker. Embodied in John Kennedy's 1962 Atlantic Partnership speech, the core US view then was that a united Europe would make future wars in the continent less likely; create a stronger partner for the US in meeting the challenges posed by the Soviet Union; and offer a more vibrant market for building transatlantic prosperity.

Yet, US attitudes gradually became more ambivalent as integration deepened, particularly in recent Republican administrations. In the economic arena, for instance, the drive towards the European single market led to US concerns about whether this would evolve into a 'Fortress Europe'. Similarly, the creation of the European monetary union prompted worries about the dilution of US primacy in the financial sector and macroeconomic policy. Moreover, in competition policy, the increasing assertiveness of the European Commission has periodically raised US concerns about EU over-reach.

Prior to Mr Trump, the George W Bush administration 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, then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld even drew a distinction between "old" and "new Europe" with the latter perceived as more favourable to US interests.

This is a theme that has also become salient during the Trump era too with the president, on average, significantly more popular in key Eastern than Western European states.

However, while the Bush team eventually recognised 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 current president's approach is an attempt to prise apart Germany and France, the traditional two motors of EU integration.

Mr Trump's relationship with Angela Merkel appears exceptionally poor and US-German relations are one of those in Europe that have gone into the deep-freeze since 2017. Here, it is not just the poor mood music between the two leaders, but also the president's denunciation of Germany which he has called "very bad" because of its significant trade surplus with the US, and comparatively low defence spending.


By contrast, Mr Trump has warmer relations with Emmanuel Macron, as shown at the G-7 last month. In this context, it is reported that Mr Trump advised Mr Macron last year that France would be better to quit the EU to get a better trade deal with Washington than the United States is willing to offer the Brussels-based club as a whole. This remarkable suggestion has no chance of succeeding, and underlines Mr Trump's poor read of European politics.

While the White House's gambit in trying to split Germany and France will not succeed, it underlines how US ambivalence about European integration has reached its nadir under Mr Trump. While he clearly values relations with some individual European countries, he is the first US president who appears to want to not just weaken, but also splinter, the Brussels-based club.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics