United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).
NATO is establishing what it terms a “strategic partnership” (Nato.int, July 11) with the European Union, whereby the EU would collectively bear a growing share of the burdens of securing and defending Europe (see accompanying article). The United States, as trend-setting power in NATO, has played a major role in shaping this initiative, as well as the NATO Readiness Initiative (NRI), which focuses directly on deterrence and defense. These two initiatives are interrelated, inasmuch as the EU’s cooperation with NATO to improve military mobility across Europe is essential to the NRI’s deterrence and defense goals. This applies first and foremost to the Alliance’s eastern frontline states, which also happen to be among the most Atlanticist-oriented countries in Europe.
US President Donald Trump seems oblivious to these considerations when encouraging fragmentation tendencies in the European Union. The implications go beyond disagreements over the terms of trade between the US and the EU or its major member countries. Those differences are almost certainly amenable to negotiated settlement. Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have suggested a basis for negotiations (free trade without tariffs, barriers or subsidies) on the eve of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s arrival in Washington. As seen from Brussels, Trump has clearly hinted that introducing tariffs on certain European products and threatening to subject further products (particularly, German-made cars) to US import taxes may be designed to tactically establish leverage ahead of negotiations (EurActiv, July 24, 25).
Beyond disputes over trade, however, depicting the European Union as an organization detrimental to the United States as well as encouraging the Brexit model risk undermining the EU’s ability to partner with NATO for the security and defense of Europe. Immediately following NATO’s Brussels Summit, where the NATO-EU partnership was announced, Trump declared during his visit to the United Kingdom that “the European Union is a foe, [considering] what they do to us in trade”; moreover, he equated the EU with China (also an “economic foe”) and Russia (in unspecified “certain respects”). Being foes, admittedly, “does not mean they are bad. It means that they are competitive,” he added (EUObserver, July 13, 15). The end-qualifier could be taken as “nothing personal, only business,” were it not for Trump’s pressure on Theresa May’s government during his visit to precipitate a total, unmitigated Brexit.
May’s government seeks to soften Brexit by negotiating a free-trade zone and customs agreement with the EU. But Trump accused May of “wrecking Brexit,” thereby “killing” the prospect of a US-UK trade deal, this purportedly being conditional on a hard pullout from Europe. According to May, Trump told her to break the ongoing negotiations with the EU, exit unilaterally, and “sue the EU, sue them.” Trump praised radical Brexit promoter Boris Johnson (who recently resigned as Foreign Secretary, protesting against May’s “soft” approach) as the right kind of future British prime minister. According to UK government estimates, however, a “hard” Brexit would cost the country up to 10 percent of its annual GDP, negatively impacting inter alia the United Kingdom’s already ailing defense budget (EurActiv, EUobserver, July 13, 14, 15).
As an EU member, the UK could regularly be relied on to share US views and those of allies in Central-Eastern Europe on a range of policy issues, from energy (see below) to external affairs to defense and security. Brexit, however, particularly in the “hard” version, would eliminate British influence from EU institutions. This would particularly affect debates on defense and security issues, to the net detriment of the NATO alliance.
The US also needs the support of the European Commission to halt the Russo-German natural gas pipeline project Nord Stream Two. The NATO Brussels summit communiqué stipulates, “[I]t is essential to ensure that the members of the Alliance are not vulnerable to political or coercive manipulation of energy” (Nato.int, July 11). The reference is to Nord Stream Two; and while those risks will immediately affect the countries situated between Russia and Germany, it is also Germany itself who faces serious long-term risks from this project, as President Trump described it in his own way during NATO’s summit.
Halting Nord Stream Two and, ultimately, blocking it is the Trump administration’s official policy, and the president has evidenced strong feelings about this more than once. The European Commission’s legal and regulatory powers in the fields of energy security and competition policy are, for the time being, the main available instruments in the effort to halt Nord Stream Two. The countries primarily threatened by this project (mostly in Central-Eastern Europe) regard the European Commission inherently as an ally in this effort, even as Germany is fighting effectively against the Commission on this issue. If the Trump administration decides to promote fragmentation tendencies in the EU, it will not be able to work effectively with the US’s friends in EU institutions against Nord Stream Two.
The US-friendly countries in Central-Eastern Europe are vitally interested in the European Union’s stability and coherence. They also have major stakes in the transatlantic trade between the EU’s largest economies and the United States. For example, hitting Germany’s car industry with heavy US tariffs would correspondingly penalize several Central European countries (NATO and EU members) where German cars and their components are mass-produced. Beyond such sectoral issues, the European Union’s multidimensional assistance has worked as a strategic enabler for this group of countries to function as NATO allies under U.S. leadership. They also hold—as never before in their history—full national voting power in Europe’s decision-making processes, via the EU’s institutions. These countries should not end up in a position of having to maneuver between, let alone choose sides between, the European Union and the United States. Divisive processes in the EU would inevitably affect NATO.