The harsh reality: Donald Trump does mean Europe harm

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    The emerging crisis between the United States and Europe is multifaceted; its contours fast evolving; its outcome hard to predict. And if that were true on Monday, it is more so now, following the firing by Donald Trump of Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, who had unequivocally expressed his horror about the nerve agent poisoning in the UK – and openly pledged the solidarity of his office with a European ally.

    The American president, by contrast, long stayed silent, even after Theresa May announced that Russia was “highly likely” to be responsible for the attack. This merits sustained reflection. While several European governments were closing ranks with the UK, united in the face of an unprecedented assault involving the use of a military grade substance in a western country, the scenario many dreaded was becoming reality. Not only could Trump not care less about the serious concerns of a supposed ally or about Russian behaviour, he actually seemed content to punish a senior member of his team who had the temerity to show that he did care. If there was ever a more dramatic way of demonstrating Trump’s indifference to the other side of the pond – not to mention what Brexiters like to believe is an iron-clad special relationship – this sequence of sorry events was surely it.

    But then the fact of a transatlantic divergence has become progressively more apparent. On climate, on Iran, on multilateralism, on Jerusalem: the scene has been set for months. Tillerson spent the past year as one of a handful of people within the US administration keen to reassure the worried Europeans that for all Trump’s maverick tendencies, the fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship were as sound as they had ever been. Tillerson’s firing will cause dismay, if not complete surprise. But it will have its effect, not least because it adds further instability to a landscape already churned by Trump-inspired shocks.

    Last week, the US administration launched what can be seen as the first concrete American assault on European interests – including British interests – since Trump came to office: the proposed imposition of US tariffs on aluminium and steel. There were exemptions mooted for Canada and even Mexico, so often the target of Trump’s ire. But no mention of a special deal for Europe. That the decision was framed as a question of US “national security” set off a frenzy of perplexed and angered European reactions, with EU officials such as the Brussels trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, rightly asking: are Europeans not US allies, rather than threats to American national security?

    Conversations last weekend at a gathering organised by the German Marshall Fund thinktank in Brussels revealed much about the distress and confusion caused by Trump’s stance on trade. The EU, to be sure, made clear it was ready to retaliate (or to “rebalance”) if a trade war was unleashed. But more apparent was the hope that somehow, somewhere, sane minds would prevail in Washington, to avert disaster. With Tillerson out of the picture, what are the odds of that now?

    There is no doubt that Trump’s stance on tariffs represents a turning point for Europe. It is not speeches and tweets. It is concrete action that seems bound by design to harm Europe. It goes beyond his description of Nato as “obsolete” (especially as all the while he was also honouring the alliance’s troop deployments in the east, facing Russia). It goes beyond his notorious description of the EU as “a vehicle for Germany”. To date, he hasn’t bothered to name a US ambassador to the EU. But he hadn’t, until now, translated his hostility for the European construct into consequence-filled acts.

    So what is going on? At the Brussels gathering, Robert Zoellick, a former head of the World Bank, noted Trump’s need to pander to his domestic base – a fair explanation. Less publicly, however, several European officials wondered about the ideological dimension and ambition of Trump’s offensive against Europe: he’s not just lashing out at European steel, he’s creating the conditions for a beleaguered EU to split.

    He will watch with glee as Brexiters kneel before him again, begging for special treatment on trade. He will want Poland’s nationalist regime – the only one in Europe that he has ever lauded – to break ranks with Angela Merkel’s Germany on car exports and other deals. Perhaps, the speculation goes, Poland will even seek to use its solidarity with the rest of Europe on trade as leverage to secure extra EU funds. Trump may, it’s true, be wary of openly granting Poland any favours after the scandal triggered by its recent law on the Holocaust, which denies Polish complicity in Nazi atrocities. But the temptation to bolster a nativist mindset surely still lingers at the back of his mind. Meanwhile, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former mentor and adviser, has been touring Europe preaching precisely that message.

    Trump’s mixture of hostility and indifference to the European project, its trading power and its liberal, democratic values, is hardly news – just as his hatred for Merkel is no secret. But with the early signs of a trade war, and the growing evidence of the president’s disdain for Britain’s predicament just when transatlantic empathy was expected, we see his estrangement from historical norms in sharp focus.

    Whether Europe can stay unified in the face of this perilous environment will be a pivotal question. Add it up: the risks for Europe if the Iran deal unravels; the costs of a trade confrontation; Trump’s indifference to Russia’s apparent use of a chemical weapon in Europe; and now the firing of Tillerson, and you end up with a gathering crisis of sobering magnitude – worse than the US-Europe rift of 2003 over Iraq. We may yet think fondly of the days when the worst he did was tweet.

    • Natalie Nougayrede is a Guardian columnist


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