European leaders said Monday that they may have to stand alone without the United States once Donald Trump enters office, raising the prospect of an unprecedented breach in transatlantic relations after Trump’s comments that the European Union is bound for a breakup and that NATO is obsolete.
Trump said in a weekend interview with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild newspaper that the 28-nation European Union was a vehicle for German interests and said that he was indifferent to the bloc’s fate. He also said he was committed to European defense even as he expressed skepticism about NATO’s current configuration.
“We Europeans have our destiny in our own hands,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. She pledged to work with Trump whenever it would be possible.
The full ramifications of a breakdown in transatlantic relations are so extensive they are difficult to total. U.S. guarantees underpin European security. The United States and the European Union, with a population of 500 million, are each other’s most important trading partner. For decades, European nations and the United States have worked tightly together on issues of war, peace and trade.
Trump’s comments “caused astonishment and excitement, not just in Brussels,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters in Brussels on Monday, where he was gathering with other European foreign ministers at a previously scheduled meeting. Coming directly from a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Steinmeier said NATO had listened to Trump’s comments “with concern.”
The incoming U.S. president is the first American leader since World War II not to support European integration. The European Union has long been considered to be in the U.S. interest, because it created a unified market for U.S. businesses, provided a bulwark against communism during the Cold War and helped quell the bloody slaughter that cost U.S. lives, among others, in the first half of the 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the European Union expanded eastward into formerly communist nations, a development that leaders there say helped bring rule of law and stability as they modernized their economies.
Steinmeier said that Germany was still trying to assess what U.S. foreign policy will be.
For example, James Mattis, the retired general nominated to be Trump’s defense secretary, offered straightforward support for NATO and skepticism of Russia at his confirmation hearing last week.
“We have to see what will come out for American policy,” Steinmeier said.
French leaders, who face tough presidential elections in April, also appeared to be scrambling to handle the fallout. Trump allies have expressed support for the anti-E.U., anti-immigrant National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is doing well in opinion polls. Le Pen lunched in the basement of the Trump Tower last week in the company of a man who has served as an informal conduit for Trump’s contacts with Euroskeptic leaders on the continent, although the Trump transition team denied any formal meeting with her.
“The best response is European unity,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. “As with the case of Brexit, the best way to defend Europe is to remain united. This is a bit of an invitation that we are making to Mr. Trump. To remain a bloc. Not to forget that the force of Europeans is in their unity.”
Some European leaders appeared to preserve the hope that Trump does not truly mean what he says or that his pronouncements will not be translated into policy.
Ayrault appeared to hope that Trump’s Cabinet would be the true force of the presidency, saying that he looked forward to sitting down with secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson upon his confirmation to discuss a range of issues of mutual concern to Europe and the United States.
And Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said he thought Trump might change his tune between now and Friday.
“One must hope that the statements of candidate Trump starting Friday will go in a different direction,” Asselborn said. “If the risks are summed up, it would be very destabilizing, which is not in the interest of America.”
Only one leader appeared to embrace Trump’s comments, and that was British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who said he welcomed Trump’s vow to negotiate a speedy trade deal between the United States and Britain. British trade relationships are in limbo as it negotiates its exit from the European Union.
“It’s very good news that the United States of America wants to do a good free-trade deal with us and wants to do it very fast, and it’s great to hear that from President-elect Donald Trump,” Johnson told reporters in Brussels.
The Times of London was represented at the interview by Michael Gove, a journalist-turned-politician who was also a Brexit campaigner, which itself was a signal from Trump.
“People want their own identity, so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave,” Trump said of the European Union. “Personally, I don’t think it matters much for the United States.”
Trump offered mixed messages about NATO, saying that he had called it “obsolete” in the past and calling it “very unfair to the United States” that most nations were not meeting their voluntary defense spending commitments. “With that being said, NATO is very important to me,” Trump said.
Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.
Trump’s attitudes have alarmed Europe, which is facing a wave of elections this year in which anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic leaders could gain in power. Most mainstream leaders had committed to working with Trump after his inauguration Jan. 20, even as they expressed hope that he would moderate his views once he took office. His hard line has created the grim realization in Europe that they may now have to stand alone, without their oldest, strongest partner.