Transatlantic ties shaky as Trump goes to Europe

US leader expected to disrupt Nato summit by railing about defence spending, import tariffs

BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON • European leaders say they no longer have any illusions about Mr Donald Trump as they welcome the US President at a Nato summit this week, but they fear his "America first" agenda may force a moment of reckoning that works to no one's benefit.

After searching for stability and familiarity in US foreign policy in Mr Trump's first year in office, America's friends in Europe have come to accept the President as an unpredictable political insurgent. But that does not make it any easier to see their own priorities undermined.

Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned in a recent speech that "old pillars of reliability are crumbling", in a veiled reference to the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to tariffs on EU metals exports and the threat of more to come on cars.

On Nato's old foe Russia, the United States administration has sent mixed messages by intensifying a US military build-up in Europe while railing against fellow Nato members on defence spending and failing to coordinate on new sanctions on Moscow in 2017.

The US President - the de facto leader of the nearly 70-year-old North Atlantic Treaty Organisation - has indicated what his message will be at the two-day meeting from Wednesday: Other governments must dramatically step up military spending and lower import tariffs.

"I'm going to tell Nato: You've got to start paying your bills. The United States is not going to take care of everything," Mr Trump told a rally last week. He added: "They kill us on trade."

US officials and politicians regularly say Washington spends 70 per cent of its defence budget on Nato, a claim that is flatly denied in Europe. One senior EU official said the number is more like 15 per cent. EU officials also contend EU tariffs on most US imports are already low.

A disastrous Nato summit could provide even worse optics than the divisive Group of Seven meeting last month, especially if a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16 is more convivial, Nato diplomats said.

EU officials say Mr Trump appears uninterested in solutions. They say he ignored top-level talks between EU envoys and US trade and State Department officials this year to avoid metal tariffs and keep Washington in the Iran deal.

On defence, Europe and Canada have tried to show they are responding to Mr Trump's demands. Defence budgets in European Nato members, Canada and Turkey are expected to rise by almost 4 per cent this year, a nearly US$90 billion (S$122 billion) cumulative increase since 2015.

That may not be enough to keep Mr Trump from raising the stakes again next week, a senior US defence official said recently.

"There is a better-than-50-50 chance that the President will disrupt the Nato summit, probably by complaining again that others aren't carrying their fair share of the burden, and possibly by threatening to withdraw if they don't step up on his terms," the official said.

Two senior Nato diplomats said they are prepared for a worst-case scenario that Mr Trump would announce a freeze on US military exercises or withdraw troops from the Baltics in a gesture to Mr Putin.

Mr Trump's May 8 decision to pull out of the Iran accord was a severe setback that has led to talk among EU officials of an "existential moment" in European diplomacy.

They say it also shows that EU efforts to develop a relationship with the White House, including highprofile visits by the French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have largely failed.

That leaves the EU seeking other alliances, including closer ties with Japan and help from Moscow and Beijing to keep money connected to the nuclear deal flowing to Teheran.

"We used to roll our eyes at Trump's policies but now we are seeing the craziness becoming strategic," another senior EU diplomat said. "We now have to seek out all kinds of partners to further our goals."

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2018, with the headline 'Transatlantic ties shaky as Trump goes to Europe'. Print Edition | Subscribe