EU leaders on Wednesday vowed that they would not be bullied by Donald Trump on the Iran nuclear accord or threatened steel tariffs.
Over a nearly five-hour long dinner of meatballs and buffalo steak in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, the 28 leaders chewed over their tough, new reality of a U.S. president who acts unpredictably and often, it seems, more as a foe than as a historic ally with shared values and political objectives.
Officially, the leaders are in Bulgaria, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, to meet with western Balkan nations as a bloc for the first time in 15 years, and rev up partnership initiatives aimed at blunting the influence of Russia and Turkey.
But the surprisingly aggressive moves by Trump in recent weeks — first by slapping down tariffs on steel and aluminum and issuing a brief one-month exemption for negotiations with Brussels, and then by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and unilaterally declaring a reimposition of sanctions on Tehran — prompted EU leaders to adjust their agenda.
The dinner, which was supposed to focus on developing new proactive policies on digital innovation, still began with a discussion of technology and there was general consensus that the EU should do more, including by creating a European Innovation Council and promoting pilot projects in areas like artificial intelligence, officials said.
At their dinner, the leaders reaffirmed their common line that “the EU will not negotiate with a gun at its head.”
But the focus quickly moved to the more nettlesome subject of Trump. Council President Donald Tusk had foreshadowed the tone of the discussion at a pre-dinner statement to reporters, where he rather somberly noted, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
To drive home the point, Tusk’s statement was quickly published on Twitter, Trump’s preferred method of communication.
The EU’s two most influential leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, had each visited Trump in Washington ahead of his decision on Iran and were able to share their personal observations with colleagues, which officials briefed on the discussion described as “extremely realistic” and “not overly optimistic” — a diplomatic attempt at saying they saw little hope for improvement in transatlantic relations any time soon.
The dispute over steel tariffs has drawn particular outrage in European capitals. At their dinner, the leaders reaffirmed their common line that “the EU will not negotiate with a gun at its head.” They are demanding that Trump issue a permanent exemption from his punitive tariffs before the current reprieve expires on June 1, and they said that in return that would be willing to initiate talks aimed at addressing shared concerns.
Former U.S.ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner said Trump was damaging transatlantic relations across the board.
Among the items potentially up for discussion: deepening energy cooperation, notably in the field of liquefied natural gas; stepped-up regulatory cooperation; joint work on reforming the World Trade Organization, particularly over ways to unblock appointments to the WTO appellate court; and reciprocal improvement of market access for industrial products, including cars, an official said.
But leaders are insisting on the permanent exemption as a prerequisite to such talks and said any negotiations would be aimed at “the objective of avoiding a trade war,” the official said.
On Iran, the leaders expressed unanimous support for the position of France, Germany and the U.K. — the three EU powers that helped broker the nuclear deal along with the U.S., Russia and China — to preserve the agreement so long as Tehran is meeting its commitments. Officials said there was consensus among leaders to work to shield European companies from any punitive action by Washington and they said they were prepared to take additional steps to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its military adventurism throughout the Middle East.
But the leaders were also adamant that they would continue pressing for adherence to a “rules-based international system” — a reflection of their dismay that Trump pulled out of the deal despite a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution that had endorsed it.The dinner was held in a high-tech center against a backdrop of pink roses. Bulgarian officials also noted that the leaders dined at a table made of paperboard, on which they could write messages that would later be displayed as part of an exhibit.
In Brussels on Wednesday, former U.S.ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner said Trump was damaging transatlantic relations across the board.
“One and a half years into the Trump administration, one can only conclude that U.S.-EU relations will be significantly, but temporarily, damaged in almost every area where we used to collaborate,” he told the European Parliament.