Joshua Roberts / REUTERS U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, January 2017.

Trump Takes Aim at the European Union

Why the EU Won't Unify In Response

A few days before his inauguration as U.S. president, Donald J. Trump took aim at the United States’ most important allies. In an interview co-published by Germany’s Bild and The Times of London on January 15, Trump disparaged NATO as “obsolete,” chastised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her government’s openness to asylum seekers, and seemed to advocate the breakup of the European Union, calling it a “vehicle for Germany.” Those comments came two days after a different bombshell: on January 13, Anthony Gardner, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the EU, said that officials from Trump’s transition team had called EU leaders and asked which EU country would be “leaving next.” 

Trump’s words marked an extraordinary departure from the norms of the postwar transatlantic relationship. For decades, the United States and the EU have been each other’s most important foreign policy partners, tightly bound by a thicket of alliances and institutions, joined at the hip in promoting liberal democratic values, and trading and investing with each other at unprecedented levels. Particularly in light of the uncertainties surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, Trump’s comments shocked many observers who support the transatlantic relationship and the broader liberal order it guarantees.

Might Trump’s attacks backfire by encouraging EU countries to unify against him? A number of European leaders have suggested as much. “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” Merkel said on January 16, in a forceful response to Trump’s comments. Others have echoed French Finance Minister Michel Sapin, who said on January 17 that “the more [Trump] makes this sort of statement, the more Europeans close ranks.”

Unfortunately for supporters of the European project, Sapin’s prediction is unlikely to hold. Instead of unifying the EU, Trump’s apparent Euroskepticism may undermine it by stirring up popular anger against internal enemies: the faceless EU technocrats and disdained national elites who seem disconnected from the day-to-day problems of most European people.

Peter Macdiarmid /

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