Commentary: In standing up to Trump, Europe gets its mojo back

If President Donald Trump wanted to make an impression with his first visit to Europe last week, he unquestionably succeeded.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) walks behind French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) as they arrive for a family photo during the G7 Summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

In their own ways, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron this weekend signaled just how little confidence they now have in American global leadership. It seemed a direct response to Trump’s performance at the NATO summit and G7 meetings.

Both leaders are playing to their own domestic audiences. Merkel – who faces German national elections in September – received a full minute of applause for her widely reported Sunday comments that the United States and UK could no longer be relied upon. Macron is fresh from his own election victory, keen to lock in a reputation as a strong centrist force who can stand up to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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Caught in the middle is Britain, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government appearing badly out of step with the European mood as it negotiates Brexit.

Having been widely seen as matching Trump at his own game in a macho series of competitive handshakes, Macron this weekend threw himself into a public face-off with the Russian leader. As Putin stood next to him at a press conference outside Paris, the French president lambasted Kremlin-linked news outlets and Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond. He also threatened French military action in the event of further chemical strikes in Syria.

The speed with which Europe’s new centrist duo – the established Merkel and freshly minted Macron – have demonstrated their newly muscular self-confidence is striking. Only recently, both France and Germany looked as though they might fall to the far right. That they have not done so appears to have given the political establishment a boost.

Economically, the euro zone is in the best shape it has been for almost a decade, its growth outpacing America’s in the first quarter of this year. The migration crisis has somewhat eased, and with it the political fallout from recent militant attacks. All of these problems – as well as Europe’s far right – may well return. But for now, the political energy seems to be with the center. Merkel and Macron are determined to take advantage of it.

For the United States, this is a mixed picture at best. Successive U.S. leaders – particularly Trump – have long tried to persuade Europe to stand up for itself, to take more responsibility for its own defense and other issues. The manner in which it is now happening, however, will feel like a slap in the face. Indeed, it is supposed to.

In more normal times, Merkel and Macron – both natural Atlanticists – would likely prefer to bolster ties with Washington and London. With Brexit and Trump, they feel the United States and UK have taken stunningly wrong turns – and they intend to be seen filling the gap.

This has been supercharged by Trump’s behavior at the NATO summit last week. The U.S. president quite literally shoved another leader aside, failed to make an expected pledge to honor the Article Five mutual defense clause and still does not seem to understand how alliance members fund defense. We don’t know what happened behind closed doors – but Merkel and Macron’s actions this weekend suggest it wasn’t pretty.

In many respects not that much will change. The NATO alliance will remain a central plank of European defense, and that will depend on U.S. military muscle. Links between the U.S. and European militaries will probably continue to deepen, despite diplomatic rhetoric to the contrary.

But major European states appear to have now made a decision to take more into their own hands, ready for the day when Washington proves absent. Expect more joint European Union action on defense – on planning, on procurement, on training. NATO will be the tool through which mainland Europe interacts with the United States and Britain. But Europe’s core states will plan much more proactively to fight alone if necessary.

For Britain, meanwhile, this new dynamic risks becoming a diplomatic catastrophe.

May’s government has adopted an unnecessarily hectoring tone when it comes to Brexit negotiations. The hefty majority she was hoping to win in Britain’s snap election no longer seems likely. And now Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, explicitly put Britain alongside the United States and Russia as countries Europe’s core states could work with, but not rely on.

That augurs badly for Brexit. But it also indicates that the UK will have much less clout when it comes to achieving anything it wants on the continent.

The way Macron and Merkel see the world is now clear. Russia is a threat. They know many of their people see the U.S. president as a joke, and that they can gain plenty of political mileage by standing up to him. Ensuring Brexit proves disastrous for the UK might well fit within that strategy.

All of that is understandable, and a renewed sense of European self-confidence may yet bring good things. But it also opens the door to a host of new uncertainties.

If and when Trump does return to Europe, it may be an even stormier visit.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve, the UK Labour Party and a Future of War fellow at New America. @pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.