The European Union has been weathering plenty of disunity in recent months. But as they gathered Friday, the bloc’s leaders seemed to have found common ground in growing concerns over President Trump’s unexpected new policies and unconventional mode of governance.
Mainstream European political figures — already worried about populist challenges and the specter of Russian interference in their own upcoming elections — have been rattled by a rapid-fire series of controversial presidential directives and combative behavior, including a getting-to-know-you call with Australia’s prime minister that reportedly ended abruptly when Trump became irritated over a refugee agreement.
In Valletta, the ancient fortress-capital of the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, leaders arriving for the EU’s first gathering since Trump’s inauguration had some sharp words for the 2-week-old U.S. administration — some centering on policy disagreements, and some on the president’s unorthodox style.
Both before and after he took office, Trump has been vocal in his support of Britain’s vote last June to exit the European Union, and has made repeated and almost offhand references to the likelihood of the bloc breaking up. He has also called NATO “obsolete,” but in recent days has signaled at least a degree of support for the transatlantic alliance that most European nations regard as vital to their security.
Trump’s remarks have been read by many in Europe as a sign that the new U.S. president has little regard for international institutions widely credited with underpinning decades of peace and economic progress. French President Francois Hollande, who spoke with Trump last weekend, was perhaps the most openly combative in his view of the U.S. leader.
“It is unacceptable that there should be — through a certain number of statements by the President of the United States — pressure on what Europe should or should not be,” the French news agency AFP quoted Hollande as saying as he arrived at the informal summit.
More criticism came from Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, who said “tangible aspects” of Trump’s policies were setting off alarm bells in Europe, and from the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who suggested that the Trump administration had not shown itself to be very detail-oriented.
“In the European Union, details matter,” Juncker said.
One reported contender for the post of Trump’s envoy to the EU, businessman Ted Malloch, has already stirred controversy. In a BBC interview last month, Malloch appeared to liken the EU to the former Soviet Union, suggesting that “maybe there’s another union that needs a little taming.” He later said the comment had been tongue-in-cheek.
In Malta, even some who said they were willing to take a wait-and-see attitude about the new U.S. administration were hardly positive in their assessments. The prime minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, said the U.S. president’s values were “not the values I’m fighting for.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a characteristically cooler and more pragmatic tone, telling reporters as she arrived: “I have already said that Europe has its destiny in its own hands.” Merkel had voiced that view after Trump seemed to waver in his backing of NATO.
Germany has been unhappy, however, with a senior Trump adviser’s talk of the European common currency, the euro, being artificially undervalued, and his suggestions that Merkel’s government was to blame. And Merkel has expressed reservations about the president’s suspension of the U.S. refugee program and his temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
At their gathering, the EU leaders held closed-door talks in which they hoped to forge a strategy for individual and collective dealings with Trump. Analysts said that would be no easy task.
“It’s a policy sea change for an American president to openly state that he supports additional countries leaving the European Union,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We just never had an approach to foreign policy like this — no one has a playbook, no one has a manual,” she said.
Heading into the Malta meeting, EU President Donald Tusk had taken the unprecedented step of warning in a letter to European leaders that Trump’s policies posed a potential “threat” to the bloc, listing that alongside other menaces including Russian aggression, jihadist attacks and a wave of populism.
The meeting was a somewhat awkward one for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is moving to implement the so-called “Brexit.” May met with Trump in Washington last week and pressed European concerns about American support for NATO, but suffered intense blow-back at home, particularly after the travel ban was announced, less than 24 hours after her departure.
May’s offer to serve as a “bridge” between Trump and the EU drew a tart response from one of the leaders attending the Malta talks— the president of Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, who also took a swipe at the U.S. president’s penchant for making foreign policy declarations by tweet.
“I don’t think there is a necessity for a ‘bridge,’” the Lithuanian leader, whose Baltic state’s proximity to Russia renders it heavily dependent on the NATO security umbrella, told the BBC. “We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”
The main goal of the gathering in Malta, on the front lines of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, was to try to find ways to stem seaborne arrivals from North Africa. The leaders endorsed a plan to provide Libya’s coast guard with equipment, training and other support, and to cooperate with Libya’s neighbors, including Tunisia and Egypt.
But rights groups expressed reservations about the plan, saying would-be asylum seekers could be either trapped in lawless Libya or sent back home and exposed to the same perils that caused them to flee.
Malta is itself experiencing direct repercussions from the suspension of the U.S. refugee program. Since 2007, more than 3,100 refugees arriving by boat from north Africa have been resettled in the United States, to help ease pressure on tiny Malta. Such resettlement is now on hold for four months, and there is no certainty the Malta element will be renewed.
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