PARIS – President Donald Trump’s last-minute refusal to sign a joint statement with America’s closest allies was met with shock but also resignation in Europe, where leaders have grudgingly accepted an increasingly isolated U.S. presence on the world stage.
Trump’s decision — announced in a pair of tweets as he sped away in Air Force One from the annual G-7 summit, held this year in Quebec City — directly contradicted an announcement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moments before. Trudeau had announced that all seven member-states had signed the joint statement, a document Trump then said he ordered American representatives “not to endorse.”
The abandonment of America’s closest allies began long before the G-7, and European heads of state are now accustomed to a U.S. administration that shows little regard for its historic partners and the postwar order that has governed trans-Atlantic relations since 1945.
Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement and his decision to impose protectionist tariffs on European steel and aluminum products have established an unprecedented level of animosity between the United States and Europe.
For many in Europe, the question is now about how best to preserve any kind of multilateral cooperation. Dealing with Trump’s whims and last-minute changes of mind has proved a procedural nightmare, political analysts said.
“How is it possible to work this way if once you have agreed to something, two hours later the guy decides he doesn’t agree with what he agreed with?” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential national security adviser.
“Is there any space for a multilateral order under these circumstances?”
But there were signs, among otherwise frustrated European leaders, that they see Trump and his “America First” agenda as an aberration and not necessarily as expressive of a new reality that will never change.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who among all European leaders arguably enjoys the strongest personal rapport with Trump, did not hesitate to voice his disappointment and displeasure at several moments the summit. But he also emphasized his belief that Trump’s vision of America was at odds with American values.
“President Trump saw that he had a united front before him,” Macron said via Twitter. “To find itself isolated in a concert of nations is contrary to American history.”
Macron, who lobbied Trump unsuccessfully to preserve the Iran nuclear deal earlier this spring, also noted on Saturday that Trump’s decisions do not speak for a unified United States.
“The importation of steel and aluminum does not pose a threat to U.S. domestic security!” Macron said in a tweet. “The basis of the U.S. decision raises doubts, including in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. administration.”
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May preferred tact to confrontation, even after Trump allies allegedly told the Telegraph newspaper that the U.S. president had grown weary of May’s “school mistress tone” and attention to details.
Asked Saturday evening by the press whether she “liked working with him,” May responded, “We have a very good relationship with President Trump.”
May did, however, allow that she and Trump had “a very frank discussion” about trade. May is not only hoping that Trump lift new tariffs on European aluminum and steel, but that he will promise a favorable pro-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom after it leaves the European bloc.
In Germany — Europe’s biggest economy and a top target of Trump’s ire on trade — there was indignation over the outcome of the G-7 summit. But there was little shock.
“It was not a surprise,” said Norbert Röttgen, chair of the foreign affairs committee in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. “The president acted and reacted in the childish way he could be expected to.”
But there were a few palpable cracks in what Macron had called a European “united front,” especially on the subject of Russia. Trump had called for Russia to be readmitted into the G-7 group, much to the dismay of many European leaders. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Europe has remained fairly united against Russia.
Not so in Italy. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who arrived in Quebec less than a week after the swearing-in ceremony for his new populist government, took Trump’s side.
He said on Twitter that Russia’s return to the group was “in the interests of everybody.” He softened his stance in other remarks, telling reporters that Italy is not seeking sanctions to be removed “overnight,” according to Reuters.
With virtually no political profile before arriving in Quebec, Conte is a little-known academic chosen as a compromise representative of two insurgent parties now governing Italy. But he seemed to make an impression on Trump, who wrote on Twitter that Conte would soon visit the White House. “He will do a great job — the people of Italy got it right!” Trump wrote.
But political analysts in Rome were skeptical of Conte cozying up too much to Trump.
“Conte went too far ahead with Trump,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political-science professor at LUISS Guido Carli, a university in Rome. “And then he backtracked a little and realized he was out of step with our natural partners.”
For others, the question was the most strategic way to respond to Trump. European leaders have become accustomed to Trump’s outbursts and U-turns, and should respond to them accordingly, said Röttgen, the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee chairman.
That means ignoring them as much as possible and trying not to call attention to Trump’s behavior, Röttgen said. He criticized Merkel’s team for releasing a much-discussed photo that seemed to show the German leader and allies staring down a defiant and isolated U.S. president.
“By portraying him as the naughty boy in the room, he will stick even more to his behavior and it will get worse,” said Röttgen, who is a member of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. “We have to ignore his behavior and concentrate on what is left of the substance of the trans-Atlantic relationship.”
That relationship could be even further frayed if the trade war escalates — a scenario that Röttgen said he expects, with the United States in his view likely to move against German carmakers.
But Röttgen derived at least some hope from Trump’s proposal for entirely tariff-free trade among allies. Although Trump coupled the idea with a threat and most experts see the notion as far-fetched, Röttgen said it is at least a basis for discussion.
Of all European countries, Germany has the most to lose from a trade war with the United States. The United States had a $151 billion trade deficit in goods with the European Union last year. Germany alone, with its high-end automobile and appliance exports, accounted for $64 billion of that.
Trump has repeatedly complained on Twitter about German automobiles flooding the U.S. market and has asked his administration to examine possible tariffs as a way to curb their popularity among American consumers, a point he reiterated on Twitter on Saturday.
In much of the European press, the tendency was to underscore the historical significance of the rift between the United States and its continental allies.
For Le Monde, a leading French daily newspaper, Trump’s antics seemed a deliberate attack on the postwar consensus. The newspaper wrote: “Donald Trump is the same age as the world order put in place by the United States at the end of the Second World War, but one would swear he decided that the latter will not survive him.”
Der Spiegel, the German weekly, called Trump’s performance in Quebec “a scandal without precedent” and said that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other traditional U.S. allies must now be prepared for anything — especially on trade, a topic dear to German hearts.
In a front-page analysis story Sunday, one of Italy’s major dailies, the center-left La Repubblica, said that “every move made by the premier has been conceived so as to break the European front and attempt to build an anti-EU axis with Trump.” But the article also warned that this approach could backfire. “Italy can only be influential if it is aligned with the rest of Europe. Trump’s interest is different from that of the Italians,” the article stated.
But there was also defiance in the European response.
Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister and one of Merkel’s closest allies, tweeted Sunday that “The West doesn’t break so easily.”
“We are all The West, if we live and defend its values,” he wrote. “Especially, when it’s difficult.”