The remarkably cordial tone between President Trump and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during their White House meeting last week was in sharp contrast to the tough rhetoric Trump has resorted to when describing Europe in the past. Instead of referring to the EU as an economic “foe” or castigating the bloc for taking advantage of the United States, Trump agreed on a more positive agenda calling for “a new phase in the relationship between the U.S. and the EU”. But although the newfound rapport between Trump and the EU is a welcome respite from the current rot in the transatlantic relationship, it is unlikely to be a long-lasting feature as fundamental issues still divide Washington and Brussels.
In their joint statement, the two leaders agreed to work towards eliminating tariffs, non-tariff trade barriers and subsidies. The EU pledged to import more liquefied natural gas from the United States and at the ensuing press conference Juncker also suggested the EU might import more American soybeans to help offset losses from trade with China. In return, the Trump administration has agreed to abstain from imposing tariffs against European carmakers for now. Furthermore, the leaders committed to cooperate on reforming the WTO and setting up a working group to advance this joint agenda.
Though valuable, these outcomes must be taken with a grain of salt. The so-called “deal” touted by Trump and Juncker alike is more aspirational than anything resembling an end point of a trade negotiation. The joint statement is mostly vague and non-committal. Even if it wants to, the EU is unlikely to be able to buy more American gas anytime soon since it is still more expensive and harder to obtain. Moreover, it is hard to imagine the EU significantly opening up its common agricultural market to allow for more imports from the U.S, something Paris especially remains skeptical of.
And both sides’ capacity to devote significant attention and manpower to transatlantic trade negotiations is uncertain given the myriad of simultaneous trade discussions the U.S. administration and the EU Commission are separately engaged in. Moreover, the fact that Trump continues to fixate on the trade deficit with Europe and slam the EU for “unfair trade policies” means that any stability between the two can easily be disrupted with just one ill-placed tweet. The section 232 investigation on auto tariffs is not finished yet and could also reappear on the agenda, something which would cause a massive European retaliation.
The split that has occurred between the transatlantic parties as a result of Trump’s disruptive trade policy has already caused Europe to look elsewhere for partners, providing new opportunities for China to wield influence and present itself as a defender of multilateralism and free trade. While the new agreement between the U.S. and the EU offers hope, the fact that Trump repeatedly rebuffed European offers to join hands on China and dismissed the EU as “worse than China” suggests President Trump does not appreciate the bigger picture of working with America’s traditional partners on addressing shared concerns about China’s economic practices. That said, if the U.S. and the EU manages to resolve their own trade disputes and work together on promoting greater trade liberalization and reforming the WTO, this would go a long way in supporting rules-based international and holding Beijing accountable.
On top of this, it is still unclear whether Trump sees any intrinsic value in investing in closer relations with the EU. If anything, Trump has showed a willingness to intervene in internal European political dynamics in support of Eurosceptic causes — for instance, by endorsing Brexit and suggesting that Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister, throwing his weight around the new populist Italian leader Giuseppe Conte, and doubling down on criticisms against Germany and its leader Angela Merkel To Donald Trump, the EU represents everything he ran against in his presidential campaign: multilateralism, liberalism, and pro-globalization.
Ultimately, the possibility of a thaw over the Atlantic is most welcome but Trump remains a deeply unpopular leader in Europe and the latest trade announcement will do little to alter how the U.S. administration is perceived in European capitals. Disagreements over divisive issues like the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal are likely to remain. Yet economic issues offer one area of possible cooperation and a chance for a new start in the troubled transatlantic relationship. Both sides should seek to use the positive momentum generated from the Trump-Juncker meeting to advance a stronger relationship, bearing in mind that Trump can easily change his mind and that many fundamental issues dividing the U.S. administration and Europe remain unresolved. In short, the transatlantic relationship is certainly not dead but it will take far more than just one good White House meeting to bring it back on track.