The past few days all eyes were on Donald Trump and his alleged ‘partner in crime’ Vladimir Putin.
Media attention understandably focused on the encounter of the two presidents as Russia is still suspected of having a hand in the outcome of last year’s US election.
But what’s at least as interesting to observe is the changing diplomatic relationship between the US and Europe.
The emergence of Donald Trump on the scene of global politics has had a massive impact on long-standing US–European relations.
Warm ties going cold
When European and American leaders disagreed in the past, they made sure to cushion their criticism.
Europe may have disagreed with the recklessness of George W. Bush’s intervention in Iraq or Barack Obama’s hesitant action in Syria. Bush and Obama, on the other hand, disagreed with the EU taking US companies like Microsoft and Apple to court.
But their disagreements were always voiced in the most respectful manner. That’s no longer the case in the Trump era.
The US President has blasted his European allies in NATO for not carrying their own weight in the transatlantic partnership and urged them to increase their defence budgets.
European leaders have sharply criticised the Trump administration for its ‘Muslim ban’ and climate change policies.
Europe’s rather strained relationship with the American leader, who may or may not have close ties with Putin, has made European leaders aware that they have to look out for themselves.
“We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” Merkel said in an election rally last May following a G7 summit where tensions with the new US president had become apparent.
“We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own.”
Translation: Europe can no longer rely on others – not in the least the US President.
It’s plain for everyone to see that EU-US relations have grown frostier since the election of Donald Trump. Not strange, if you consider that Trump hailed Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
Unlike his predecessors who supported the close cooperation of European countries, Trump would rather see the EU unravel as he appears to believe that would serve US interests.
Tensions between Europe and Trump could be felt from day one.
Merkel responded to Trump’s election win by reminding him of the common values Germany and the US share. Trump had previously criticised the German leader’s handling of the refugee crisis.
“There is now a more openly confrontational language with the United States,” says Jan Techau of the American Academy in Berlin in the New York Times.
“The European public is already outspoken about Trump, but now there is a more outspoken leadership that won’t paper over these divisions anymore.”
“Trump has no constraints and will say anything, and now the Europeans feel they can do the same – that means less respect for each other, and less mutual confidence.”
One reason European leaders are going along with Trump’s outspoken style could be because they feel assertiveness is the only way to get through to him. Bullies only respond to strength and so Europe will have to be firm with Trump.
Another reason may simply be that bashing Trump is good politics.
‘How to deal with President Trump’ was an issue in the Dutch election, and it’s become a theme in the German election too. Trump has a 5% approval rate among Germans, so openly challenging the US President could be a vote winner.
Going in different directions
Despite the strong language used by Trump and Europe’s leaders, what really matters are the policies pursued by Brussels and Washington.
It is here that we can most visibly see how Europe and Trump’s America are moving in opposite directions.
The EU, sometimes criticised for being too focused on its own Internal Market at the expense of trade with third countries, has become more outward-looking.
The bloc has already agreed comprehensive trade deals with Canada and Japan this year. It’s also in talks with China over an investment partnership now that Brussels and Beijing are united in their opposition to Trump’s protectionism.
Where the EU is actively recruiting new friends and relationships, the US is going in the opposite direction.
The country was always going to turn more inwards under President Trump, who had vowed to put ‘America First’.
One of his first acts as president was to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal with 11 countries in the Pacific Rim.
The US’s planned free trade deal with the EU – TTIP – had already reached an impasse, but it’s very unlikely talks will be resumed as long as Trump is holding the reins.
If the past weeks are anything to go by, Trump’s actually more likely to start a trade war with the EU than sign a treaty.
The US President has expressed his desire to restrict the import of European steel, which has sparked a response from Brussels. The EU will allegedly retaliate by limiting the import of US agricultural goods, among other things.
Trump’s not out to make friends (or maintain old friendships for that matter). He illustrated this perhaps most clearly by walking away from the Paris Climate agreement, signed by 195 countries.
Trump, who’s openly sceptical of climate change, doesn’t see any benefit to the US signing up to the treaty. On the contrary, he’s tried to frame it as a global agreement to put the US at a disadvantage.
As a result, the US’s global standing seems to be deteriorating at record speed.
Where his predecessor, Barack Obama, was viewed favourably by 64% of people surveyed in 37 countries at the end of his second term, only 22% trust Trump to do the right thing.
Trump’s awkward encounter with Putin may have grabbed the headlines during the G20 summit, but it will be at least as important to monitor how EU-US relations develop under Trump’s presidency.
Now more than ever, Europe needs to stand on its own feet, though for the time being it’ll still rely on the US on matters of security and trade.
Going forward, Europe has to find a way to work with the White House as well as challenge it.