Spotlight: One year of turbulence leaves Europe-U.S. relations in question

Source: Xinhua| 2018-01-06 01:51:26|Editor: Zhou Xin
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by Jeremy Hawkins

BRUSSELS, Jan. 5 (Xinhua) -- Once one of the most privileged relationships, the ties between Europe and the United States saw a turbulent 2017 with the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Questions remain as to how the Europe-U.S. relationship will be able to function in 2018, and to what degree European leaders can adapt to the changes in order to be self-sufficient, while retaining hope that differences can be repaired.


When Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, European observers anticipated changes in transatlantic relations, but perhaps not the degree of disruption that would follow. Europe and its American partner have disagreed on a variety of fundamental issues such as military engagement, international trade and climate change policy.

It began even prior to Trump's inauguration, when in early January 2017 the then-president-elect sharply criticized NATO, calling it "obsolete" and claiming European partners were not paying their fair share.

"23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying," Trump said in May 2017 on the occasion of his maiden summit with NATO, adding that they owe "massive amounts" and hinting that the United States may not honor the organization's mutual defense clause if defense spending didn't increase among allies.

Trade was an issue as well. Trump slammed Germany for maintaining a "massive trade deficit" with the United States, saying it was "very bad" and promised things would change.

In January 2017, one of Trump's first acts was to pull out of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with Asian partners. EU leaders then understood that the new president would be a difficult trade ally.

But European allies found the U.S. president more reluctant to compromise on international trade than expected.

While general consensus was reached at the G20, concessions were made for Trump's anti-globalization stance at the annual G20 summit in Hamburg in July 2017 with "legitimate trade defense instruments" recognized in the agreement reached at the summit, raising fears of punitive tariffs on trade.

Climate change policy also proved to be a major bottleneck for the Europe-U.S. relationship, with disagreements coming out of the annual G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, in May 2017, and then again in Hamburg for the G20.

Trump declared in July 2017 that he was unilaterally pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, claiming it was a "bad deal", despite heavy lobbying from his European counterparts to stay in the broad-reaching and ambitious pact.


With transatlantic relations under strain, European leaders responded in 2017 with increased measures to reinforce European capacities on defense and other issues, in order to reduce reliance on U.S. support.

Following the G7 summit, in which Trump's uncompromising position led to dissatisfying results for the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was time for Europeans "to take destiny into their own hands."

"The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over," Merkel said, signaling with this momentous phrase that Europe-U.S. relations were undergoing major shifts, and that the Europe would respond with developing self-reliance.

Common European defense has been a critical theme of the shift away from dependence on the United States, with the November 2017 signing and December 2017 launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement.

The pact will allow 25 participating EU member states to pursue greater cooperation on matters of defense and security.

PESCO and other European Defense Union initiatives have been presented as complements to NATO -- foremost a defense alliance -- but observers have noted that they represent a general change in political orientation, with European allies less confident of support and cooperation from the United States.


Following a year of uncertainty and disagreement, observers believe possibilities remain in 2018 for renewed transatlantic cooperation, based on shared values and common interests, with European leaders looking for opportunities to reestablish trust.

Trump, for his part, has walked back some of his toughest stances on NATO and trade talks with the EU. For European leaders, these signs of slightly increased openness may be interpreted as a possibility to revive relations, but many discrepancies remain to be addressed.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that any strengthening of EU-U.S. relations will depend on a stronger and more robust European Union, and able to withstand storms of uncertainty coming from North America.

European leaders may be looking to reinforce the union with initiatives such as PESCO and European common defense, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to counterbalance Trump's unpredictability in 2018.

KEY WORDS: Europe-U.S.