French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were both in Washington D.C. recently, on visits to the White House. Whereas President Macron was greeted with a lavish state reception, Chancellor Merkel’s visit was a modest working visit.
Two issues dominated both the visits – the US continuing its participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning Iran (often termed ‘the Iran deal’) and the EU’s exemption from US steel and aluminium tariffs.
It is still not entirely clear what President Trump will decide to do with regard to the Iran deal, with the possibility of a US withdrawal certainly on the table. As for tariffs, the EU gained a month-long exemption at the beginning of May, joining Canada and Mexico. However, the short-term nature of the exemption demonstrates that the issue of a potential trade war involving the EU is far from over.
The visits also serve as an opportunity to reflect more generally on the current state of international affairs. But how are these looking?
First, President Trump does not care about personal relationships and shared values; he cares solely about interests. Both Macron and Merkel came back from their meetings with empty hands. Irrespective of whether President Trump likes or dislikes the French and German leaders on a personal level, he has not given any guarantees about US commitment to Iran deal, if anything, he gave signs that the US will leave, nor did he provide any assurance that the EU will be exempt from tariffs. The transatlantic community of values, the history of the transatlantic relationship and personal relationships take a backseat for President Trump, and one should be careful about putting too much importance on them.
What Trump cares about is US interests. Will a relationship with France benefit his agenda or not? Does Germany harm US interests or not?
This is nothing new. Europe’s role in US foreign policy has been changing for a decade already. The US has become “a giver with clear expectation.” There is an expectation on the US side that Europe must give something in return for the security guarantees it offers, while previously the gains of the transatlantic relationship were more indirect, meaning, as Xenia Wickett argues, the transatlantic relationship has become much more transactional. Both Presidents Obama and Trump have been calling for Europe to increase its defence budgets and contribute more to NATO. In the aftermath of Libyan military intervention, President Obama expected Europe to pursue state-building and humanitarian efforts in Libya while the US took a back seat.
Secondly, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel’s visits were a stark reminder for the EU that the organisation is not the global player we sometimes imagine it to be. Trade is under the European Commission helm. It is the European Commission that negotiates, signs and implements trade deals for EU member states. To have two national leaders but not the President of the Commission or Trade Commissioner to root for tariff exemption is telling about the EU’s lack of a global role.
One of the challenges the EU faces is “doing business” in an increasingly bilateral world while being a multilateral framework itself. The power of the UN has been diminishing for years. President Trump is a fan of neither NATO nor NAFTA. President Putin has avoided multilateral cooperation and has deliberately pursued bilateral relations with countries in Europe and the rest of the world. One of the benefits of the EU is that it can send its Heads of State of its two most powerful countries to fight EU battles, but what does it say about the EU itself?
President Trump’s Presidency has given a proper shake to transatlantic relationship and international affairs. Commonly-shared values are not the hard currency that they used to be and the importance of multilateral cooperation is decreasing. We are yet to see how lasting the effect of these developments will be, but Europe and the EU must adapt – at least for the duration of Trump’s Presidency.