It's hard to keep up with Donald Trump’s view of the U.S.-EU relationship, but his latest assessment of it drew swift reaction, when he told a U.S. interviewer he considered the European Union alongside Russia and China as a “foe.”
The extraordinary description of one of his country’s key partners sparked a spirited defense of the trans-Atlantic relationship from leading EU figures, who labeled Trump’s remarks “fake news” and vowed the relationship would endure. But the comments also highlighted the widening gulf between the U.S. and Europe in the Trump era, prompting Germany’s foreign minister to warn Europe could “no longer completely rely on the White House” and needed to readjust its relationship with Washington in the wake of Trump’s erratic diplomacy during last week’s NATO summit, which left doubts lingering over the strength of the alliance.
Trump made the incendiary comments to CBS News at his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland Sunday. “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade,” he said, before going on to list Russia as a “foe in certain respects” and China as a foe “economically.”
The interviewer, Jeff Glor, pushed back, saying, “A lot of people might be surprised to hear you list the EU as a foe before China and Russia.” But Trump stuck to his statement, saying the EU was “very difficult.”
“You know I love those countries. I respect the leaders of those countries,” he said. “But, in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills.”
The comments drew a swift response from senior European Union figures, eager to emphasize that Trump’s coolness to the bloc did not reflect the overall health of the trans-Atlantic relationship.
In a pointed tweet, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”
And in a possible reference to Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin Monday, Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, tweeted: “Calling your best friends foes only makes your real foes happy. Europeans and Americans are bound by history and their shared values. Europeans will never give up on America because America never gave up on us. That’s what friends are for.”
But Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said after the comments that Europe could no longer rely on the United States and needed to readjust its relationship with Washington.
“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” he told the Funke newspaper group Monday. “To maintain our partnership with the USA we must readjust it. The first clear consequence can only be that we need to align ourselves even more closely in Europe.”
Trump’s comments were just the latest in a series of destabilizing attacks on the trans-Atlantic relationship in recent days during his chaotic trip to Europe. He has put question marks over U.S. commitment to NATO with his repeated attacks on European partners over their defense spending, and attempts to link disagreements over transatlantic trade to American commitment to NATO. In Britain, he fanned far-right sentiment with comments linking immigration to crime and terrorism, and undercut Prime Minister Theresa May’s fragile position on Brexit before decrying the comments attributed to him as “fake news.”
Trump’s unprecedented attacks on NATO have caused special alarm, coming as they have ahead of his bilateral meeting with Putin. Analysts have noted with alarm that weakening the relationship between the United State and Europe is one of the Kremlin’s primary objectives regarding NATO.
Paul Ivan, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center, told VICE News that while the transatlantic alliance would likely endure, Trump’s comments augured stormy days ahead, with dwindling American influence in Europe and vice versa.
“It’s clear that the U.S.-EU relationship is going through a difficult period and there is likely more trouble ahead,” he said.
“We see that President Trump’s comments already have an effect on a section of the American public whose attitudes toward the trans-Atlantic alliance have become more negative. Through his rhetoric against the EU, President Trump reduces both Europe’s influence in the U.S. and certainly also the U.S.’s influence in Europe.”