In 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted US President Donald Trump’s election victory with an extraordinary warning: She would work with him on the condition that he respect democratic values.
Things did not improve from there.
Four years later, Trump’s abrasive foreign policy moves, often unveiled in all-caps tweets, have alienated not just Germany, but much of Europe.
“The transatlantic relationship is practically on life support,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the US German Marshall Fund.
Even if Democratic challenger former US vice president Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, experts said that there would be no magical healing of the Europe-US rift.
Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center found that the image of the US among Europeans has plummeted to record lows, with just 26 percent of Germans holding a favorable view of the superpower.
The “harsh judgement” can be partly attributed to the widespread belief that the Trump administration “mishandled the coronavirus,” said Bruce Stokes, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank.
“Europeans look at America and think there are a lot of domestic issues that are just breaking the country apart and how can it be a good partner” at such a time? David-Wilp said.
From pulling out of the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal to slapping tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, and defanging the WTO, Trump has dealt blow after blow to multilateralism, a much-valued European approach to global challenges.
He stunned allies by describing the EU as a foe on trade, and “scared people” by cosying up to Russia, Stokes said.
Germany, which holds the EU presidency, has been a regular target of Trump’s anger, often over its failure to meet NATO’s defense spending targets.
On a personal level too, there is no love lost between Merkel, who is leaving office next year, and the real-estate tycoon in the White House.
Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron who tried to woo Trump with a military parade and a dazzling Eiffel Tower dinner before ties soured, Merkel never went out of her way to court the mercurial US president.
Relations in June turned even frostier after she rebuffed an invite for a G7 event in Washington over COVID-19 concerns. Soon after, Trump announced that he was slashing the number of US troops stationed in Germany.
“He has real trouble dealing with strong women,” Stokes said.
However, Trump has made some friends on the continent. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who shares his anti-immigrant sentiment, is openly backing him for re-election.
Poland, which stands to benefit from Trump’s troop reshuffle, has experienced “a US re-engagement” and shares Washington’s opposition to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, said Justyna Gotkowska, regional security program coordinator at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Polish think tank.
Should Biden win, he “will see the need to revitalize relationships with allies,” David-Wilp said.
Expect the former vice president to make a trip to Europe early on, rejoin the Paris Agreement and restart nuclear talks with Iran, experts say.
Areas of friction will likely remain on military spending, Nord Stream 2 and Washington’s campaign against Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies Co.
Faced with a COVID-19-battered US economy, Biden will probably eschew Trump’s more protectionist tendencies, but some sort of “America first” vision for sensitive industries will likely live on.
“Europeans have to understand that a Biden administration is going to be so domestically preoccupied,” Stokes said.
The career politician is expected to surround himself with seasoned foreign policy officials who would “even more than normally” be relied upon “to pull things back together, but hopefully also chart a new course” with Brussels, he added.
Should Trump be re-elected, expect “a great sucking in of breath” across European capitals and “another four years of a very rocky ride,” Stokes said.
However, even under Trump, it would be “entirely possible” for the US and the EU to form a united front when it is in their self-interest on issues such as COVID-19 or China policy, Stokes said.
German Legislator Peter Beyer, Merkel’s transatlantic coordinator, recently said that a “new cold war” between Washington and Beijing had already begun, and that Europe should “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the US to face a rising China.
An unintended side effect of the Trump turbulence has been the growing realization that Europe must speak and act more as one.
“Trump definitely jolted things,” David-Wilp said.
The bloc’s successful negotiation of a huge COVID-19 stimulus package, spearheaded by Merkel and Macron, suggests a new impetus for closer cooperation and a reinvigorated German-French partnership.
Trump’s attacks painting Europeans as taking advantage of the US have spurred higher NATO contributions and a greater acceptance of burden-sharing on security issues.
There are plenty of obstacles ahead for the 27-member club with its disparate interests, not least the impending Brexit turmoil and elections looming in key member states.
However, “if one wants to say the glass is half-full, the Trump presidency may have helped accelerate European unity,” Stokes said.
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