Trump visit: 5 things Europe’s leaders should do – and not do – this week

On 25 May, President Trump will come to Brussels, on the last leg of his first trip abroad.

If anyone takes offense at Europe coming in line after Saudi Arabia and Israel on this trip, then talking to Trump might be a waste of time.  You will be better off among the demonstrators with their whistles, #resist hashtags and “Impeachment!” placards. But if the heads of government of EU and European NATO members want to get anything positive out of the meeting this week, they might want to keep in mind a few do’s and don’ts:

  1. Trump is here to stay. Don’t get sidetracked by the Washington sitcom around the Kremlin connection and its diverse spinoffs. First of all, impeachment is not around the corner. And second, even if it were, this administration will remain with us for a whole four years: snap elections are not part of America’s political system.
  2. Focus on the concrete. Don’t lecture the President on the history, principles or values of European integration. That doesn’t mean Europe’s leaders should forget about their identity or hide what they stand for. But that they should count on a President and administration interested in pragmatic progress and with little interest in theory.
  3. Europhobia is an exception. Don’t take some US conservatives’ criticism of European integration as the new normal. Frustration over a perceived lack of European burden sharing on defence and security is as old as the alliance. Similarly, the exasperation over the ping pong game between Brussels and the national capitals – as encapsulated in Kissinger’s question about which phone number to call for Europe’s position. Keep in mind that while Trump has some advisors openly opposed to the EU, the vast majority of his key people in the White House and elsewhere recognise the value of the EU even if they find dealing with it to be overly complicated and annoying.  
  4. Work on united EU positions. But keep in mind that Americans note how European leaders don’t always convey a common message when they communicate through their Embassies in Washington. When Trump or his advisors try to discuss EU policies with individual European counterparts, they aren’t necessarily trying to weaken the EU; they want to achieve fast results by working with the countries they deem more influential than others in Europe. Hence, as long as EU member states don’t devolve all their powers to Brussels, some of them will have to speak for the whole Union sometimes. Such is life.
  5. Find the common interests. The last, but most important point: do make constructive proposals that are in the interest of both Europe and the US. Besides serious commitments to improved defence efforts which have already been widely discussed, here are a few ideas:
  • NATO: Visibly increase military spending, but even more importantly, improve pooling and sharing among European forces within NATO. Accelerate NATO reform, with more concrete commitments to the South. However, one should keep in mind Turkey’s nuisance value in blocking NATO projects in the Middle East.
  • Russia: Europeans and Americans need to stay close on managing sanctions and other matters related to Russia.  Trump is no longer enthralled with Putin; hence, European leaders need to exploit the rapid end of this Administration’s originally planned “reset”.  But, that also means that Europe has to have a united position towards Russia.
  • Syria: Trump was sincerely shocked by Assad’s gas attack, and he launched the  counter-strike despite opposition from the  ‘America First’ crowd in his Administration. He will certainly be open to concrete ideas that address the humanitarian issues in the civil war. Joint military and civilian operations to establish safe zones for refugees from the killing fields in Syria, (also Yemen and Libya), difficult as they may be, will be a good start. Joint initiatives to save Christians and other religious minorities also come to mind.
  • Turkey: How can the US and Europe work together with a NATO ally that is increasingly moving away from the West? Trump will be open to a common transatlantic attempt to define red lines, but also incentives, vis-à-vis Turkey.
  • China: Managing an aggressive China that is also a major economic partner of both the US and EU is a major challenge.  Trump is focused on North Korea and trade imbalances.  European ideas on multilateral pressure on Chinese advances in the South China Sea will be welcome.
  • Brexit:  Trump has a known bias in favor of the UK in the Brexit process.  But many corporate leaders keep repeating that a smooth and constructive Brexit would be good for American interests.  Trump may like the idea of Brexit but he doesn’t want American companies and investors to be hurt. Europeans would diffuse a lot of US concerns if they agreed to consult on those issues involved in Brexit that have direct implications for the US.
  • Trade:  While some of Trump’s advisors may hold very simplistic views on the transatlantic trade balance, others believe that a trade war should definitely be avoided. This view is shared by the business community. Hence, in the footsteps of the moribund TTIP, and building on positions already agreed in that process, European leaders should propose a Transatlantic New Deal that takes into account people’s fears about losing out to globalisation, and that more visibly strengthens the position of small and medium enterprises.
  • Intelligence: First, in general, Europeans have to become more pragmatic on intelligence sharing and (especially in Germany’s case) show more appreciation. Secondly, and more specifically: One of the things that could be damaged by Brexit is transatlantic intelligence cooperation. Europeans should have ideas in mind of what they want and what they will give in return.
  • European Defence Cooperation:  EU leaders should expect the President to applaud European efforts.  But they ought to be careful not to promise what they can’t deliver in the short run. Trump may still be looking for reasons to shift American power to Asia. Above all: the EU should work on its intervention capacity while military defence against conventional attack should remain a NATO matter. Of course, strengthening the European pillar within NATO will be welcome in Washington.