BRUSSELS/ROME – European governments called for cool heads and tighter unity as they reacted with shock to President-elect Donald Trump’s remarks slamming NATO and predicting European Union nations would follow the U.K. out of the bloc.
Trump’s comments, which call into question the depth of continued U.S. support for free trade and European defense, sent shock waves around the EU at a time when governments are already battling to deal with the rise of nationalism, Brexit and a belligerent Russia.
“If the Europeans want to be protagonists, and not just spectators, they have to work closer together and accelerate on a common security and defense policy,” Sandro Gozi, Italy’s junior minister for European Affairs, said in an interview. “I don’t share his prediction that there are other Brexit-type departures from the EU on the horizon.”
In interviews with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild published late on Sunday, Trump said leaving the 28-nation EU would be good for Britain, suggested that he would consider lifting U.S. sanctions on Russia and described the 67 year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organization as obsolete.
The remarks suggest the president-elect’s stance toward Europe is crystallizing with little regard for the basic tenets of the post-World War II trans-Atlantic relationship. One reason European governments should be concerned is “because he essentially describes the EU as a plot to damage U.S. trade interests and a hostile organization,” said Jan Techau, head of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.
“If he means what he said, then he’ll probably try to undermine it even further,” Techau said by phone. “Europe should get used to this new strategic reality.”
Many say they have taken heart from the more conventional foreign policy positions described by Trump’s picks for defense secretary and secretary of state, retired Gen. James Mattis and ExxonMobil ex-CEO Rex Tillerson, at confirmation hearings. They also point to the strong support for NATO and the firm line on Russia expressed by senators from Trump’s Republican Party during the questioning.
Ultimately, they expect the postwar Western alliance to withstand a more skeptical approach from the White House, thanks to deep institutional understanding of its benefits on both sides of the Atlantic. A stepped-up schedule of summits and meetings will give early chances to clear the air.
“We are working on the basis that Trump will listen to Mattis, Tillerson and foreign policy Republicans,” said a senior EU diplomat involved in foreign policy planning in Brussels.
“If we can cement a relationship based around the calendar of meetings, bilaterals and summits, we may be able to get beyond the headlines and the election campaign.”
Trump’s position contrasts with that of outgoing President Barack Obama, who lent his support to the EU’s sanctions against Russia as well as to its open borders policy, and who said Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for any trade accord with the U.S.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose refugee policy was described by Trump in the interview as “catastrophic,” pushed back against the criticism without delving into policy, saying she wouldn’t comment on his agenda before his inauguration on Friday. “He has now set out his positions once again, but they’ve been known for a while,” Merkel said in Berlin. “My positions are also known.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault gave a more direct rebuttal, saying that governments should remain committed to multilateralism “and not return to nationalism and to everyone out for themselves.”
“The best way to defend Europe — and this is Mr. Trump’s invitation — is to remain united, to stand together, not to forget that the strength of Europeans is their unity,” Ayrault told reporters in Brussels at the start of a meeting of the EU’s foreign ministers.
Jens Spahn, one of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s deputies, echoed that sentiment, saying that the EU needs to confront Trump with a single voice. “The European Union must present itself much more united vis-a-vis the United States because this is the only way to make its significance clear,” he said.
In the interviews, Trump promised the U.K. a quick trade agreement and portrayed the EU as an instrument of German domination designed with the purpose of beating the U.S. in international trade. For that reason, Trump said, he’s fairly indifferent to whether the EU stays together.
French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who caused a flurry in New York last week when she took time out from France’s presidential race to visit Trump Tower, praised his comments as signaling “economic patriotism.”
In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said his only response to the interview was that “we have read this interview with interest.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters that the bloc was looking for a “partnership which is based on common interests with the United States.”
“The European Union has its own, solid, autonomous, strong policies,” Mogherini said. “We always like good company but we determine our own policies.”
Trump’s comments, as well as reports that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is prepared to lead Britain out of the EU’s single market, saw the euro and pound decline. Sterling fell below $1.20 for the first time since October.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is absolutely confident that the incoming U.S. administration will remain committed to NATO,” the alliance’s spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement.
Despite the calls for a measured response, Trump’s remarks are causing “astonishment” and “agitation” across the EU and concern at NATO headquarters, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.
“The most important thing is that we play it cool at the moment and wait for them to actually start working,” Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said before the Brussels meeting. “We have to wait and move away from Twitter diplomacy to real politics.”