A US-EU Reset: Why We Need It and What It Means

This article is by Mary Trimble.

There is perhaps no relationship so important to the United States as the one with Europe, and particularly with the European Union. In the post WWII-era, the alliance between America and the countries of Europe has been widely regarded as indispensable in terms of trade and political support on a wide range of issues from rebuilding after WWII, defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, reintegrating Eastern European states into Europe, and addressing counterterrorism after September 11.  So why, in the days preceding Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to meet with incoming EU leaders earlier this month, did the US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, refer to the trip as a “reset” in US-EU relations?

The Trump administration’s relationship with the EU has been turbulent from its earliest days. European allies initially expressed frustration at the number of ambassadorships left unfilled early in his term, and expressed frustration once again with some of those whom the President appointed to those posts. The US Ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, came under fire for saying that there were “no-go zones” in the Netherlands due to Islamic extremism, and the German far-left party demanded that the US Ambassador to Germany be expelled for his comments about enabling and encouraging far right parties in Europe.

President Trump’s own rhetoric on the EU and NATO has been inflammatory, to say the least. After calling NATO obsolete during his campaign, President Trump passed an opportunity to reiterate the United States’ commitment to uphold Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty: that an attack against one was an attack against all (he much later made clear his support).  He has been openly critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy and enthusiastic about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. But his rhetoric isn’t the only thing to raise European ire; on May 31, 2018, the President imposed tariffs on European aluminum and steel (this running contrary to Ambassador Sondland’s comments on EU-US trade upon his arrival in Brussels in September of 2018, when he said that he wanted to “reduce barriers” to trade). Europe retaliated with some politically pointed tariffs of its own, including on imports of Wisconsin’s Harley Davidson motorcycles, and Kentucky bourbon, a key export of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel’s home state. Thus began a trade war in the largest and most consequential trade relationship in the world. Trade negotiations have continued with no movement from either the EU or the United States.  A WTO ruling against EU state subsidies for Airbus is likely imminent, and will result in countervailing measures by the United States.  In addition, the continued threat of US tariffs on European automobiles looms.  Neither of these eventualities will soothe the relationship.

Secretary Pompeo himself ruffled European feathers in December of 2018 at a speech at the German Marshall Fund, an European-American think tank whose stated mission is to “strengthen transatlantic cooperation.”  In a textbook example of realism on the world stage, Pompeo expressed doubt over whether international and regional organizations like the EU, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the International Criminal Court in the Hague were serving the purposes for which they were created. He argued that President Trump believed that “nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of freedom and national interests.” Standing just meters from the EU institutions’ headquarters, he also took aim at European bureaucrats, who he implied were self-seeking and out-of-touch.

It is with this baggage that Secretary Pompeo arrived in Brussels on September 2nd to mend fences with the EU’s incoming crop of leaders. In the words of Ambassador Sondland, “The secretary made this trip solely and exclusively to see the four EU leaders with the objective of resetting our relationship.” The Secretary met with Ursula von der Leyen, the German who will take over as president of the European Commission; Charles Michel, who will be the chairman of EU summits and is currently the caretaker Prime Minister of Belgium; the incoming speaker of the EU Parliament, Italian David Sassoli; and Josep Borell, the Spaniard who will be the foreign policy chief. Key topics on the docket were trade negotiations and growing tensions with Iran as the US encourages sanctions and the EU tries to hold the 2015 Nuclear Deal together.

Did his reset succeed? Time will tell, as the new executives are sworn in this coming November. President Trump, for his part, tweeted on the last day of Pompeo’s visit that the EU treats the US “VERY unfairly” on trade, and that this “will change.” It is yet unclear if there will be any success at cracking the impasse in the trade discussions (where EU agricultural subsidies are a sticking point) or if the EU and the US will find themselves back on the same page with Iran before tensions boil over. What is certain is that the relationship remains vitally important to both American and European interests and is well worth the maintenance it most certainly requires.

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