Trump's tangle with Europe leads the continent to find partners elsewhere – Washington Post


A day after President Trump pulled out of a key climate agreement, declaring he was fighting for “Pittsburgh, not Paris,” an international realignment was already taking shape on Friday, as European and Chinese officials signed a raft of agreements to bind themselves tightly together.

The pullout left the United States as a global outlier, and, many European leaders and experts said, a severely diminished force in the world. And it gave China fresh weight in a newly unbalanced landscape where longtime U.S. allies are searching for stability.

Friday’s landmark moves came after German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared this week that Europe must stand on its own, and after she had a warm Berlin tete-a-tete this week with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an up-and-coming rival to U.S. global power.

“Today China and Europe have demonstrated solidarity with future generations and responsibility for the whole planet. We are convinced that yesterday’s decision by the United States to leave the Paris agreement is a big mistake,” European Council President Donald Tusk said Friday after meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. But, he said, “Strong transatlantic ties are far more important and far more durable than the latest unfortunate decisions of the U.S. administration.”

Li also said that China’s relations with Europe were more important than ever, given “destabilizing factors” in the world.

“A stable China-E.U. relationship is useful to counter the uncertainties in this world,” he said.

(Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

In a single Brussels meeting last week, Trump blasted European leaders for their handling of defense spending, called for terrorists to be “humiliated” and bragged behind closed doors that he had already done more to fight terrorism than President Barack Obama did in four years.

The 3 ½ days of meetings between Trump and the Europeans may stand as a turning point in an alliance that was born from the ashes of World War II, as Europe turns toward China and other economic partners it views as more stable. Many senior European officials were jolted by the talks, which started in the winding streets of Brussels and continued on to muggy Sicily. They said they had made a mistake by allowing themselves to be lulled by Trump’s more conventional-sounding Cabinet members.

“Anti-Americanism will bloom,” said Tomas Valasek, a former Slovak ambassador to NATO who is now the head of the Carnegie Europe think tank. “It will be much harder to politically explain to the European publics that we would cooperate with the U.S. president, because Donald Trump has made himself so unpopular now.”

Now, many European officials say, they are steeling themselves for years of conflict with Trump, and searching for other partners in areas such as climate change, where the United States has become a roadblock. In other arenas, such as defense, Europeans are far more dependent on the American security umbrella, though they are scrambling to achieve self-sufficiency now that they fear the validity of U.S. guarantees.

The European message has been unusually tough.

“Nothing is renegotiable in the Paris accords,” France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, told Trump in a five-minute phone call after Trump pulled out of the agreement, according to an official briefed on the conversation. “The United States and France will continue to work together, but not on the subject of the climate,” he was described as telling Trump.

And on Friday, the French government redid the video the White House released to promote the decision, marking it up with comments that derided Trump’s reasoning.

(French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs)

It is a sharp comedown from just eight days ago, when European hopes were high after the first leg of Trump’s international trip. On his swing through the Middle East, the U.S. leader laid off his punchy Twitter habit and offered conciliatory messages to assembled monarchs and other leaders. 

This account of Trump’s European visit is based on interviews with more than 10 E.U. diplomats, officials and people familiar with the trip. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared further strain with the United States.

Trump touched down in Brussels on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. After munching fine chocolates with the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, and locking with Macron in a white-knuckled handshake that the French leader was later to call “a moment of truth,” Trump rolled up on Thursday to dedicate NATO’s new glass-and-steel headquarters.

Diplomats had been told that Trump would recommit the United States to the all-for-one, one-for-all principle of the defense alliance, which he had questioned on the campaign trail. But the president — who told the authoritarian leaders of the Middle East that he was “not here to lecture” — blasted America’s closest allies for being “unfair” to U.S. taxpayers. Standing in front of a twisted beam from the World Trade Center, Trump said they owed money to the alliance and offered no high-flown praises of the idealistic principles on which NATO was founded.

As the world’s cameras rolled, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel wiggled his eyebrows and leaned over to whisper to Macron. The normally disciplined Merkel later said it was all she could do not to make a face as Trump spoke, according to someone who traveled back to Germany with her.

Sitting down for dinner, Trump continued on the theme, railing for more than five minutes against the alliance, speaking off the top of his head.

“The United States has not been treated fairly,” Trump said, according to a senior European diplomat who took notes at the dinner. “It has been taken advantage of.”

“He clearly discarded the nice words for the shock-and-awe effect. And this he clearly achieved,” the diplomat said. “We saw it on everyone’s faces during the meeting.”

Trump also mixed domestic partisan politics into his comments, the diplomat said — an unusual step in the usually nonpartisan world of NATO. He was matched only by the Kremlin-friendly Czech president, Milos Zeman, who did something similar, according to the diplomat.

The Trump administration “achieved more in eight weeks than Obama did in four years” against terrorism, the president said, according to the NATO diplomat. Trump called for “ruthlessness in stamping out the terrorists,” saying they should be “humiliated,” the diplomat said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tried to put a bright face on the meeting at its conclusion, saying Trump sent a “strong signal” of commitment just by coming to NATO in the first place.  

But others had a starkly grimmer conclusion.

“We have just witnessed President Trump putting an end to European-American relations,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense expert who advised Macron during his campaign.

“By talking about NATO as a transactional alliance,” he said, “it’s very difficult to rebuild that kind of inbuilt trust.”

The contention continued the next day in Sicily at the Group of Seven summit, where leaders implored Trump to stay in the Paris agreement. He refused to commit, leading a dejected Merkel to exit the talks with an unusually grim assessment.

The next day, she told a beer-tent rally in Munich that Europe “must take its fate into its own hands,” offering poor prospects for cooperation with Washington.

A top Merkel confidant said that Trump seems to be more focused on winning votes than on embracing the mantle of leader of the free world.

“You get the feeling that sometimes the U.S. president first and foremost speaks to his voters in the U.S. and not as the leader of the biggest and most important country in the world,” said Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who is a key Merkel ally.

Analysts say that German elections in September may be sharpening voices in that country, which is turning into Trump’s loudest rival.

“People aren’t holding their punches like they once did,” said Robin Niblett, the head of the London-based Chatham House, a think tank.

European leaders kept close tabs on the White House’s thinking in the days after the talks, sucked into the reality-TV-type suspense that Trump fed with a weekend tweet promising an announcement in the days ahead. 

But when Trump stepped into the Rose Garden on Thursday to pull his nation from the agreement, Europeans were quick to hit back.

Trump’s face-to-face meeting with the Belgian prime minister may have been cordial. But on Thursday, Michel minced no words after the White House announcement.

“I condemn this brutal act,” Michel wrote on Twitter. “Leadership means fighting climate change together. Not forsaking commitment.”

Karla Adam in London, James McAuley in Paris, Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Annabell Van den Berghe in Brussels contributed to this report.



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