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Foreign Policy

Cracks in U.S.-European Relations

Jun 13, 2020
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

Since the beginning of this year, the rift in relations between the United States and Europe has been widening, with almost all major U.S. actions being met with snubs, doubts or objections. The media on both sides don’t hide the friction or hesitate to use sharp language.

The Independent newspaper in Britain wrote that U.S. President Donald Trump has “irrevocably changed American relations with Europe.” NTV Deutschland said that the unpredictability of the U.S. undermines the EU’s trust. The website Business Insider commented: “Europe is abandoning Trump on the world stage.” Those are just a few of many examples.

With regard to the COVID-19 epidemic, the gulf is widening. As early as the beginning of January, the U.S. was receiving warnings from China and the World Health Organization about the epidemic, but Trump was unresponsive, claiming that one day the disease will simply “disappear” and so there was no need to panic. Europe listened, relaxed its preparations and ended up feeling cheated.

According to the French online newspaper L’Opinion, after the outbreak, the U.S. repeatedly snapped up epidemic supplies (at high prices) or withheld them from its European allies, including France and Germany in a display of extreme self-interest. Today, the U.S. has the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths in the world, and it’s dragging down the global response and efforts to reopen.

The White House’s attitude toward the WHO is also offensive to Europe. The WHO has been effective in guiding and coordinating the global fight against the epidemic. At the World Health Assembly, held via video link on May 18, nearly 200 WHO member states unanimously recognized the good work of the WHO. Trump, however, accused the WHO of incompetence and not being transparent, and he blamed it for the worsening epidemic in the U.S. On May 29, Trump announced the termination of U.S. relations with the WHO on grounds that it had not been reformed in accordance with the views of the U.S.

This absurd decision immediately became a target of public criticism. According to The Guardian in Britain, Trump never intended to reform the WHO and never engaged in dialogue with it. He wanted to withdraw the U.S. from the organization for political reasons as he sought to deflect blame for the epidemic in the United States, which he himself richly deserved. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, noted that Trump was looking for scapegoat.

Both German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Muller characterized Trump’s claim as sending the wrong signal at the wrong time.

At the end of May, Trump made public a new plan: The G7 Summit in September would be expanded to a G11 Summit by inviting four more countries — Russia, Australia, the Republic of Korea and India — to attend.

Trump’s intentions are clear. As The Guardian wrote, the expansion targets China. Shahar Hameiri, an expert on international issues from Australia’s University of Queensland, said the move was intended to establish more international decision-making platforms that exclude China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was not interested, and French President Emmanuel Macron has been slow to take a position.

Media analyses suggest that Merkel and Macron were reluctant to provide Trump with a platform for articulating his strategy toward China before the presidential election.

A spokesman for the Russian president said on June 1 said Trump’s expansion idea would not be truly representative. That’s because without China’s participation it would be impossible to achieve any important movement of global significance.

On June 1, the German Weekly Focus noted that the EU and U.S. are deeply divided on many issues. In addition to global climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue and the U.S. withdrawal from international organizations and treaties, EU states have major disagreements with U.S. policies toward China — fighting COVID-19 in China, the creation of a new national security law for Hong Kong and decoupling from China in general.

In contrast with the U.S., Europe has praised China’s approach and effectiveness in fighting the epidemic, and the two sides have cooperated fruitfully and held several meetings via video link to exchange experiences. China was invited to send medical teams to Italy and Serbia.

While Trump said on May 28 that he will revoke Hong Kong’s special status with the United States, the EU responded to China’s national security law for Hong Kong cautiously, unwilling to be a vassal of the U.S. and taking a neutral position.

The EU resists decoupling theory. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), a national German newspaper, says it all: “For the EU, responding to Trump’s proposal to decouple from China is too costly.” Meanwhile, the Washington Times quoted EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles as saying, “We want to keep talking to Beijing.”

On June 3 and 5, Merkel and Macron spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Both expressed their support for China’s campaign against the pandemic and approved of Xi’s announcement that China will make any vaccines it develops available for international public benefit. They said they are ready to work with China in implementing the consensus reached at the World Health Assembly and continue to support the important role played by the WHO. Merkel and Macron also hope to strengthen cooperation with China in a wide range of areas and issues, and to raise relations between Europe and China to a higher level.

The EU has opposed the U.S. withdrawing from international organizations and treaties at every turn. In response to the U.S. announcement that it will withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty within six months, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Sweden issued a statement expressing their objections.

According to Business Insider, Europeans’ confidence in the U.S. has taken a sharp turn for the worse since the outbreak of the coronavirus. A recent poll in Germany found that the views of 76 percent of Germans toward the U.S. have become more negative during the epidemic. A French poll found that only 2 percent of the population thinks the U.S. is capable of leading the world.

The Independent commented that the relationship between Europe and the United States has reached its lowest point to date, and if Trump is re-elected it will only get worse. One European diplomat said: “Our concern is that the U.S.-European relationship has not hit the absolute bottom yet.”

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