Since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, Europeans have struggled to come to terms with his confrontational style and policies. From Trump’s tariffs to his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement to calling the EU a “foe,” no U.S. president since World War II has appeared so distant, even hostile, to European interests. Early on, many European leaders attempted to cultivate a good relationship with Trump, hoping that a personal connection could help calm the increasingly turbulent waters of the transatlantic alliance. Some, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, succeeded, while others, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, fared less well.
In recent months, however, the tone coming from European capitals has changed. In August, in a rather undiplomatic op-ed, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed doubts that his country could just “sit this presidency out” and called for “a sovereign, strong Europe” in response to Trump’s hostility. Macron echoed this sentiment in his annual speech to ambassadors: “I do not honestly think today that China or the United States thinks Europe is a power with strategic autonomy comparable to their own. I do not believe it.” Invoking former U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s foreign-policy legacy, Macron warned his diplomatic corps not to see Trump as a fluke and to think through Europe’s own strategic priorities as the United States becomes increasingly untethered from its allies across the pond. Europeans are right to eschew nostalgia when it comes to the transatlantic relationship: it took a figure as direct and undiplomatic as Trump to wake Europeans up to this new normal. Devising European strategic autonomy is now the new name of the game, but what does it actually mean for a European continent long used to following the United States’ lead?
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