LONDON: If US President Donald Trump wanted to make an impression with his first visit to Europe last week, he unquestionably succeeded.
In their own ways, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron this weekend signalled just how little confidence they now have in American global leadership. It seemed like a direct response to Trump's performance at the NATO summit and G7 meetings.
Both leaders are playing to their own domestic audiences. Merkel – who faces German national elections in September – received a full minute of applause for her widely reported Sunday comments that the US and UK could no longer be relied upon. Macron is fresh from his own election victory, keen to lock in a reputation as a strong centrist force who can stand up to Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Caught in the middle is Britain, with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government appearing badly out of step with the European mood as it negotiates Brexit.
Having been widely seen as matching Trump at his own game in a macho series of competitive handshakes, Macron this weekend threw himself into a public face-off with the Russian leader. As Putin stood next to him at a press conference outside Paris, the French president lambasted Kremlin-linked news outlets and Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond. He also threatened French military action in the event of further chemical strikes in Syria.
The speed with which Europe’s new centrist duo – the established Merkel and freshly minted Macron – have demonstrated their new muscular self-confidence is striking. Only recently, both France and Germany looked as though they might fall to the far right. That they have not done so appears to have given the political establishment a boost.
Economically, the eurozone is in the best shape it has been for almost a decade, its growth outpacing America’s in the first quarter of this year. The migration crisis has somewhat eased, and with it the political fallout from recent militant attacks. All of these problems – as well as Europe’s far right – may well return. But for now, the political energy seems to be with the centre. Merkel and Macron are determined to take advantage of it.
For the US, this is a mixed picture at best. Successive US leaders – particularly Trump – have long tried to persuade Europe to stand up for itself, to take more responsibility for its own defence and other issues. The manner in which it is now happening, however, will feel like a slap in the face. Indeed, it is supposed to.
In more normal times, Merkel and Macron – both natural Atlanticists who believe in the importance of close cooperation between Europe and the US – would likely prefer to bolster ties with Washington and London. With Brexit and Trump as US President, they may feel that the US and UK have taken stunningly wrong turns – and they intend to be seen filling the gap.
This has been supercharged by Trump’s behavior at the NATO summit last week. The US president quite literally shoved another leader aside, failed to make an expected pledge to honour the Article 5 mutual defence clause and still does not seem to understand how alliance members fund defence. We don’t know what happened behind closed doors – but Merkel and Macron’s actions this weekend suggest it wasn’t pretty.
In many respects, not that much will change. The NATO alliance will remain a central plank of European defence, and that will depend on US military muscle. Links between the US and European militaries will probably continue to deepen, despite diplomatic rhetoric to the contrary.
But major European states appear to have now made a decision to take more into their own hands, ready for the day when Washington proves absent. Expect more joint European Union action on defence – on planning, on procurement, on training. NATO will be the tool through which mainland Europe interacts with the US and Britain. But Europe's core states will plan much more proactively to fight alone if necessary.
For Britain, meanwhile, this new dynamic risks becoming a diplomatic catastrophe.
May’s government has adopted an unnecessarily overbearing tone when it comes to Brexit negotiations. The hefty majority she was hoping to win in Britain’s snap election no longer seems likely. And now Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, explicitly put Britain alongside the US and Russia as countries Europe’s core states could work with, but not rely on.
That augurs badly for Brexit. But it also indicates that the UK will have less clout when it comes to achieving anything it wants on the European continent.
The way Macron and Merkel see the world is now clear. Russia is a threat. They know many of their people see the US president as a joke, and that they can gain plenty of political mileage by standing up to him. Ensuring Brexit proves disastrous for the UK might well fit within that strategy.
All of that is understandable, and a renewed sense of European self-confidence may yet bring good things. But it also opens the door to a host of new uncertainties.
If and when Trump does return to Europe, it may be an even stormier visit.
Peter Apps is Executive Director at the Project for Study of the 21st Century and Reuters’ global affairs columnist.