Americans didn’t choose Europe’s favored candidate. And while the election answered one question, it also created a huge torrent of others for Europeans. European Union leaders hadn’t fully contemplated the possibility they’d have to deal with the unknown quantity of a President Donald Trump.
The uncertainty is so all-consuming that EU foreign ministers have been called to Brussels for a special dinner Sunday night in the hopes they can dispense with the inevitable “what the heck just happened?” confab. That will then, conceivably, make it possible to concentrate on the other issues scheduled for Monday’s regular meeting.
Clues to Trump’s transatlantic plans, if they exist yet, are few — European issues rarely came up on the campaign trail. But when they did, candidate Trump generally lobbed diatribes against such transatlantic fixtures as U.S. support for EU unity — he cheered the Brexit outcome that’s wracking the bloc — and NATO collective defense, which he has implied should be changed into pay-as-you-go security guarantees.
Peppered with queries from journalists about the direction new transatlantic cooperation will take, EU officials have only reiterated that they simply don’t know what to expect. In other words, they are holding out hope that President Trump’s policies may be different from candidate Trump’s positions.
“Hope” is a theme prominently displayed in the office of the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini. The word is on a huge framed poster of President Obama hanging right behind her desk, the famous Shepard Fairey artwork used in Obama’s 2008 campaign. In an exclusive interview Wednesday, Mogherini looks at the poster wistfully and recalls a phrase Obama had used with pride after his first White House win: “Everything is possible in America.”
Now, Mogherini says pointedly, that statement can be read two ways.
It’s a message that hasn’t been lost on leading politicians in key EU countries — France, Germany and the Netherlands — who will soon face challengers that may have once been considered long shots “too extreme” for a majority of citizens.
The 43-year-old Mogherini, who has headed EU foreign affairs and served as a European Commission vice president since 2014, says she can’t hide her appreciation for the outgoing administration.
“We have worked incredibly well,” she says. “We have done a lot of good things together, and we believe very strongly — still — that the interests of the European people and of the Americans are very much the same. And so we see the need to continue to work together.”
It’s no accident that she names in particular the U.S.-EU partnership on climate change, which Trump has called a “hoax,” and the multinational agreement on Iran’s nuclear development, which Trump has vowed to reject. Mogherini herself was one of the negotiators for that hard-fought compromise.
Sticking to her “hope” theme, Mogherini wants EU governments to realize they need to fight less among themselves and forge a united front with which to negotiate this new terrain. “Maybe this is the right chance for us to realize the power we have,” she says, “the role we should play.”
At the same time, Mogherini emphasizes that she has made numerous proposals for improving the bloc’s security and defense capabilities, in particular, unrelated to the U.S. election.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders says he hopes the “shock” of the result will serve as the necessary injection of ambition, particularly given the perception that Trump plans to cozy up to Russia, which is currently under heavy EU sanctions for its annexation of Crimea. Reynders says that even under Obama the U.S. has discounted the EU as a negotiating partner in critical talks on issues like Syria.
He says that needs to change.
“I have seen in [the] last weeks that the discussions were just between Washington and Moscow,” he says. If the EU can present itself as a stronger entity, he says, “I’m hoping it will be possible for the European Union to be present at the table.”
Dutch lawmaker Marietje Schaake, the vice chair of the European Parliament’s delegation for U.S. relations, says that if Trump’s election — after Brexit — wasn’t enough of a wake-up call for the need for EU solidarity, she couldn’t imagine what would be. She thinks Brussels should do a little pushing in the other direction, too.
With all the alarm Trump has caused in Europe, Schaake says she was astounded how warmly EU leaders responded to him. Within hours of the announcement of results, for example, the president-elect had been invited by European Council President Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker to visit Europe for a summit.
“Some of the statements really gave the impression the name Hillary Clinton was erased and the prepared statement was just sent out,” Schaake says. She says such messages appeared far too “business-as-usual” for her taste.
She says German Chancellor Angela Merkel had struck the right “courageous and very clear” tone in her “congratulatory” message, telling Trump that Germany was prepared to work with an administration that respects “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.”
Trump has now spoken personally with a handful of world leaders, including Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, who at one point made a remark of Trump-like bluntness that some of the candidate’s comments had made him want to “retch.”
But there are signs the EU leaders may not be quite as conciliatory as it initially seemed. On Friday, Commission President Juncker told a group of students the U.S. generally doesn’t pay attention to Europe, so it will be necessary to “teach” the new president about “what Europe is and how it works.” Juncker added: “I think we will waste time for two years while Mr. Trump tours a world he is completely unaware of.”
For her part, Mogherini says she’s keeping up her picture of President Obama but is willing to give his successor the benefit of the doubt for now. “Sometimes what you do and what you say in an electoral campaign is different to what you do as a president,” she says. “We will have to see what happens on Jan. 21 in Washington.”
Asked whether she’ll feel awkward meeting Trump after his controversial remarks about women, she threw that in the same bin of bygones. “I’m Italian,” she jokes. “I’ve seen it all.”