Will EU’s Juncker emerge from Trump meeting as friend or foe?

Will EU’s Juncker emerge from Trump meeting as friend or foe?

US 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 US-EU trade spat, Juncker's broader objective is to try to calm wider transatlantic tensions that boiled over at the rancorous G7 and NATO summits.

At the heart of this diplomatic discord is Trump’s disdain for the European Union, which goes significantly beyond that of any president in US history. While he has concerns with Europe's low levels of defense 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 big goods surplus with the United States.

Only last week, Trump declared: “I think the EU is a foe, what they do to us [the United States] in trade.”  While some have dismissed this 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 between 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 United States 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. This was especially so when some European leaders began to conceive of the continent as a counterweight to the United States.

While the White House’s gambit in trying to split Germany and France is most unlikely to succeed, it underlines how US ambivalence about European integration has reached its apotheosis under Trump.

Andrew Hammond

This process has by no means been linear. For instance, with the end of the Cold War, the idea of strengthening the European role within the transatlantic alliance through the establishment of a European security identity was revived, notably in NATO’s new Strategic Concept, issued in 1991.

However, its implementation became embroiled in a struggle over how much independence such a European security identity should have. US policymakers were concerned about the danger of too much continental integration in the defense and security field, which they believed would come at the expense of NATO and waste valuable resources.

Difficulties also emerged in the economic arena as integration proceeded. To be sure, many US officials have historically been as concerned about European economic weakness as much as the emergence of a more powerful rival.

Yet the drive toward the European Single Market led to US concerns about whether this would evolve into “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 overreach. Only last week, for example, 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!”.

Prior to 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 defense arena. On the eve of the NATO defence review in 2003, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld even drew a distinction between “old” and “new Europe,” with the latter perceived as more favorable to US interests.

The Bush approach was fuelled by divisions among Europeans themselves. A letter of support for the United States on the eve of the Iraq invasion from eight European leaders (the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Portugal and the Czech Republic) pointedly distanced themselves from France and Germany, encouraging the administration to pick and choose among European leaders.

However, while the Bush team eventually recognised the need to draw back from this approach, it appears 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.  

In May, it is reported that Trump advised Emmanuel Macron, whom he appears to hold in high regard, 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 EU as a whole. This remarkable suggestion comes in the context of the US 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 most unlikely to succeed, it underlines how US ambivalence about European integration has reached its apotheosis under Trump. The scale of the challenge facing Juncker is therefore huge given this is the first US president in history who appears to want to not just weaken, but also splinter, the Brussels-based club.


  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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