Europe's leaders cannot hide their nerves amid Trump congratulations

Foreign ministers arrange meeting to assess how election victory will affect relations with US on trade and defence

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European foreign ministers are to meet on Sunday to assess what impact Donald Trump’s election victory will have on transatlantic relations amid widespread nervousness about his intentions on trade and defence.

That anxiety was shared with US allies and trading partners elsewhere in the world who are waiting to see what Trump’s “America first” approach will entail once he is in the Oval Office in January.

In Europe, the uncertainty bubbled up beneath the ritual dispatch of congratulations. The German defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave her gut reaction soon after the outcome of the election became clear, admitting her surprise.

World leaders congratulate president-elect Donald Trump

“It was a big shock when I saw the way things are heading,” Von der Leyen told the broadcaster ARD. She referred to Trump’s remarks during the campaign that Nato allies could count on US support in the event of an attack only if they made fair contributions to the cost of collective defence.

“Of course we Europeans, as a Nato ally, know that if Donald Trump becomes president, he’ll ask: ‘What are you contributing to this alliance?’” she said. “But we’re also wondering, what’s your position on this alliance?”

Von der Leyen said the German government was trying to find a contact in the Trump transition team, a challenge shared by other European capitals that had expected to be dealing with familiar figures from Hillary Clinton’s team. “There are many questions yet to be answered,” she said.

Speaking later in the day, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, framed her congratulations in the conditional, suggesting Berlin would get on with Washington as long as it continued to share core values.

“Germany and America are linked by values such as democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and the dignity of men, regardless of origin, skin colour, religion, gender or sexual orientation,” Merkel said. “On the basis of these values, I offer US president-elect Donald Trump our close cooperation.”

Angela Merkel in Munich
Angela Merkel in Munich on Wednesday. Photograph: Matthias Schrader/AP

While the UK prime minister, Theresa May, issued a more formulaic statement of congratulations, François Hollande’s reaction was as guarded as Merkel’s. He predicted a period of uncertainty that “must be faced with lucidity and clarity”.

Speaking after his weekly cabinet meeting, the French president said: “Certain positions taken by Donald Trump during the American campaign must be confronted.

“What is at stake is peace, the fight against terrorism, the situation in the Middle East. It is economic relations and the preservation of the planet.”

Any hope that the long-negotiated and controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership might finally be agreed next year by the US and EU have largely been abandoned. Trump put hostility to such multilateral trade accords at the heart of his campaign.

But the comments of European officials also betrayed apprehension about Trump’s unconcealed admiration for Vladimir Putin and his ambivalent attitude towards Nato, which he once referred to as “obsolete”.

A presidential spokesman in Poland, Marek Magierowski, stressed the importance of Nato showing its commitment to defence on its eastern flank by basing battalions in the region, including a US armoured brigade, and building a US missile base there.

For his part, Putin foresaw Trump’s election leading to an improvement in bilateral ties, saying: “We are aware that it is a difficult path, in view of the unfortunate degradation of relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”

Portraits of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a pub in Moscow
Portraits of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a pub in Moscow. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

The Russian president said it was not Russia’s fault that the relationship between Moscow and Washington was in such a poor state.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, stressed that US treaty commitments in Europe went beyond the vagaries of electoral politics. “Nato’s security guarantee is treaty commitment and all allies have made ... a solemn commitment to defend each other. And this is something which is absolute and it’s unconditioned.”

Stoltenberg noted pointedly that the only time Nato had invoked article 5, the clause on collective defence in its founding treaty, was in defence of the US after the 9/11 attacks.

On election night, when it became clear that Trump was heading for victory, the French ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, known for speaking his mind, tweeted: “It is the end of an era, that of neoliberalism. It remains to be seen what will succeed it. After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.” The tweets were deleted soon afterwards.

France, like the rest of Europe, will have to find a way of working with Trump. But before Araud’s remarks disappeared, they were noticed by Florian Philippot, the top strategist in France’s Front National, which will seek to emulate Trump’s success in the French presidential election next April.

“Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built,” Philippot tweeted.


Julian Borger World affairs editor

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