News analysis

Europe unsettled by 'America first' declaration

Trump's inaugural speech, which makes no mention of the continent, is viewed as divisive and unrepentant

European governments are scrambling to respond to US President Donald Trump's inaugural address, a speech which served notice on the world that the new administration is determined to pursue an assertive "America first" policy.

Some European leaders, such as Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, have chosen early engagement with Mr Trump as a way of dealing with the new dispensation.

Privately, however, all European leaders agree that forging an amicable working relationship with the new administration in Washington will be even more difficult than initially feared.

Most European capitals had hoped Mr Trump would use his inauguration as an occasion to unveil a more inclusive foreign policy, like his predecessors who devoted their addresses to appeals for national reconciliation and international cooperation.

Yet not only did Mr Trump deliver a stumping speech which was indistinguishable from those made during his electoral campaign, but he also acted as someone who was still fighting to win power, rather than as a president in control of all levers, including both Houses of Congress.

He did not mention any of the United States' existing allies or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), America's most powerful military alliance and the lynchpin of Washington's global security agenda.

Neither did he make any reference to foreign policy values or principles; the very name of the European continent did not cross his lips even once.

Instead, the foreign universe which Mr Trump sketched out in his speech was an unremittingly hostile one in which other countries inflict "ravages" on the US by "making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs", and foreigners take advantage of America by getting US taxpayers to protect them, while the wealth of ordinary Americans is being "ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world".

The speech was received in Europe as vintage Mr Trump at his most divisive and unrepentant. Deputy German Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel led the chorus of European condemnations by publicly dismissing Mr Trump's speech as reminiscent of "the political rhetoric of the conservatives and reactionaries" in Europe during the 1920s, a grave accusation given what followed in Europe during the 1930s.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck a more conciliatory note when she pledged yesterday to seek compromises on nettlesome issues of trade and military spending with Mr Trump, who has questioned the relevance of Nato and criticised US allies who fail to spend more on defence.

A protectionist US trade policy will also likely hurt Germany, a leading exporting nation.

"I believe firmly that it is best for all of us if we work together based on rules, common values and joint action," Dr Merkel said.

"The trans-Atlantic relationship will not be less important in the coming years than it was in past years. And I will work on that. Even when there are different opinions, compromises and solutions can be best found when we exchange ideas with respect."

Britain, meanwhile, is reaching out to the new administration. Hours after Mr Trump's inaugural address , officials close to Mrs May let it be known that the British Prime Minister may travel to Washington later this week for talks with the new US President.

If it happens, such a summit - Mr Trump's first as President - is expected to suit both sides.

It will allow Mr Trump to recall the close relationship with Britain forged by Mr Ronald Reagan, a president he greatly admires, and Mrs Margaret Thatcher, Britain's former premier to whom Mrs May is often compared.

And an early meeting will also boost Mrs May's claims that her country is far from isolated in the world, notwithstanding its decision to leave the European Union.

Meanwhile, leaders of Europe's far-right populist parties who met yesterday for a yearly get-together in the German city of Koblenz also extended a hand of friendship to Mr Trump.

Ms Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, Ms Frauke Petry, who leads the Alternative for Germany, and Mr Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom hope that Mr Trump's election will help them in the national ballots they all face later this year.

European diplomats in Washington still hope that Mr Trump may moderate his stance by the time he attends his first summit in Europe, provisionally scheduled for March.

But although his objectives are still poorly sketched out, Mr Trump's promise that his foreign policy will be "America first" at all times remains deeply disturbing for a continent which has consistently stood by America for generations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 22, 2017, with the headline 'Europe unsettled by 'America first' declaration'. Print Edition | Subscribe