We can breathe a sigh of relief: A trade war between the United States and Europe, which would have had a strongly penalizing impact on an economy relying on exports such as Italy’s, has been averted for the time being. After branding the EU a “foe” in the commercial sphere, Donald Trump pulled on the handbrake in the course of his talks with Jean-Claude Juncker in the White House. And Juncker, who in his capacity as head of the European Commission is accustomed to negotiating, negotiated as much as he could – basically, a truce that paves the way for agreements on tariff cuts (which will not be easy and which may certainly not be taken as read).
Trump’s method is the method with which we are now familiar: an (at least temporarily) outstretched hand following on from a plethora of threats. Both sides of the Atlantic appear, at least, to be aware of the risks and the cost involved in triggering a retaliatory spiral among the Western economies. We shall have to wait and see how things pan out over the next few months – the few months between now and the mid-term elections in the United States.
But in the meantime we are looking at the first real improvement in the transatlantic climate since the shock that Trump’s visit sparked in Europe, a shock so serious that even such a staunch pro-American as Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German Ambassador to the United States, wrote in the New York Times a few days ago that the Europeans must prepared to “be left in the lurch.” Ischinger wrote that if Donald Trump does not like either the EU or what it represents – one of the best products of the postwar international order long guaranteed by the United States –, then the Atlantic pact can no longer hold out, thus the Europeans need to put together a Plan B. The trouble is that they are not yet ready to “go it alone.”
The commercial truce achieved in the White House does not alter the substance of the issue that Europe is facing, but it does allow it to address that issue in a rational rather than an emotional manner. I consider three points to be decisive in this connection.
First, the Europeans need to take on board the fact that the old Atlantic setup, Trump or no Trump, is in any case fated to come to an end. We are witnessing the twilight of the Pax Americana, a fact to which Europe has been very late to wake up. The trajectory was already clearly visible under the Obama presidency with its warnings regarding Europe’s insufficient defense budgets and its pivot to Asia; and it is fated to continue in the post-Trump era. This, for the very simple reason that there is no longer a domestic consensus within the United States in support of the excessive financial burden required to protect Europe. Any Plan B must take its cue from this premise: European defense and security finally need to be taken seriously. Seriously means defense spending, it means investment projects at the European level, and it means a rational coordination between the EU and NATO. Also, whatever happens with Brexit, it means keeping the United Kingdom and its military capability anchored to the continent. Only if Europe displays its credibility in the security and defense spheres can it hope to build a new, more balanced relationship with the United States, and it is in Europe’s best interests to do so as Juncker’s visit to the White House has shown us.
Second, the problem is that Europe is showing up for this rendez-vous with history not only late but also in a state of serious internal weakness. Donald Trump is not the only one evincing skepticism toward the old “international liberal order,” the term with which political scientists define the rules and institutions of the multilateral system that the West started building in the last century. That skepticism has put down roots in numerous European societies, which are radically split between those who want to defend that order (of which European integration is part and parcel) and those who, on the contrary, wish to reaffirm the unbridled sovereignty of the nation state. The clash between these two positions will be a crucial factor in the European election in the spring of 2019, when a strong sovereignist/nationalist group could well take shape in the European Parliament – a group on which, for different reasons and with different instinctive reactions, both Trump and Putin look with kindness.
Third, Europe needs to interpret the opportunities and constraints of a difficult international transition process as clearly as possible. Germany (the priority target of Trump’s attacks) is looking to forge new alliances with “like-minded” countries as interested as it is in safeguarding the multilateral rules and institutions. Germany and Japan (following the signing of a commercial treaty with the EU) would be the mainstays of such a group, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, but the real picture is more complex: Any global order of a liberal nature will by definition be fragile unless it can rely also on the United States. In fact it is no mere coincidence that disorder prevails today. And Europe must avoid errors of judgment. For example, it is risky to include in the “like-minded” group also countries that are only verbally so: China continues to be more of an unfair competitor than a potential ally.
But the worst error would be to consider that the old international order simply needs to be defended. It needs also to be reformed, including in the commercial sphere (the Us and Europe are going to consider reforming the WTO, according to reports on Juncker’s visit to the White House). Otherwise Western grassroots consensus will shift increasingly toward nationalistic positions, and the European Union would be one of that shift’s predestined victims.
*A version of this article was published in the daily La Stampa of Friday, July 27, 2018