It’s no secret that Donald Trump is no big fan of the European Union. Over the past four years, the US President has talked positively about Brexit and claimed that the bloc was created in order to “take advantage of the United States.”
So it’s perhaps no great surprise that several of his ambassadors to several European nations have behaved in ways that are not exactly diplomatic, in the traditional sense.
Earlier this week, it emerged that Pete Hoekstra, the US ambassador to the Netherlands, hosted an event at his embassy for Forum for Democracy (FvD), a far-right, anti-immigration and anti-EU party that is gaining popularity in the country. Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, which first reported on the event, described it as a fundraiser for the party.
A US state department spokesperson told CNN that this event was not a fundraiser, but a “town hall discussion and Q&A session” with FvD. They added that during his stint in the Netherlands, Hoekstra has hosted “15 town halls with eight different parties,” suggesting that this event with FvD was nothing unusual.
Not everyone agrees.
“Hosting a political party event, fundraiser or not, you can see it as political support from the United States for a particular point of view. Normally, diplomacy is about government-to-government interactions, not promoting particular viewpoints and giving the impression of having political allies,” said Marietje Schaake, a former Dutch MEP and international policy director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.
“The Trump administration has shown time and again that its allies are the Euroskeptics like [Nigel] Farage and FvD, not the governments of the day,” Schaake added.
Hoekstra is just one of a number of divisive ambassadors appointed in Europe by Trump who appear to be eroding trans-Atlantic ties, enraging their hosts and representing Trump’s personal interests in Europe.
“Europe has traditionally been a place where political appointees go, but usually it’s understood that they represent the US government,” said Tyson Barker, a former US State Department official in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. “What we have seen since 2016 is people representing Trump and his personal interests, rather than the US.”
CNN recently reported that Woody Johnson, Trump’s ambassador to UK, was being investigated after allegations that he’d used his position to lobby for the British Open golf tournament to be held on one of Trump’s golf courses. Asked about the specific allegations, Johnson did not deny them and called it an “honor of a lifetime” to serve as ambassador. After the publication of CNN’s report, Johnson tweeted, “I have followed the ethical rules and requirements of my office at all times.” Trump said he “never spoke to Woody Johnson about doing that.”
Johnson has also been open in his support of Brexit, suggesting it presents an opportunity for the UK and the US to grow closer, claiming this would strengthen Britain’s hand when dealing with the EU.
This pattern has also been noticed in Germany, where former ambassador Richard Grenell waded into territory that diplomats traditionally avoid, such as tweeting that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately,” within hours of starting the job. Trump’s hard line on Iran has been particularly difficult for the EU to swallow, as the nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew was originally signed under the auspices of the EU, its most significant triumph on the geopolitical stage.
Grenell also gave an interview to right-wing outlet Breitbart, where he said he wanted “to empower other conservatives throughout Europe.” Given the role of a diplomat is to deal with whichever government represents the country they are in, to speak so unambiguously about your political preference is highly unusual.
Under Trump’s presidency, the US has also strengthened its relationship with EU countries that are generally considered to be delinquent member states, threatening the bloc’s unity.
Most notably, Trump praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during his trip to the White House last year. Orban “has done a tremendous job in so many different ways. Highly respected, respected all over Europe. Probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK,” Trump said at the time. Orban spent the past decade presiding over assaults on his nation’s courts, academic institutions, central bank and press. The EU is currently investigating these assaults and could yet punish Orban by removing some of his rights at an EU level.
The message has been well and truly received in Brussels. “Are there any EU-US relations left? The official political line is whatever the differences, there is more that unites us. But if you look at it properly, there are only divisions,” said one senior EU official.
“Under Trump, it seems they never miss a chance to try and undermine the EU. They take radical action in areas of joint interest without consulting us, such as on Iran, moving the [US] embassy [to] Jerusalem. There is a growing sense that we simply cannot rely on the US in the same way as before,” the official added.
In the eyes of many in Europe, the ambassadors appointed to key nations by Trump are consistent with a larger shift in EU-US relations.
“Trump and his diplomats have given the impression that they want to punish the EU for some reason or another,” one German diplomat told CNN. “There is a huge internal debate over whether we can collaborate with the US anymore, even if [Joe] Biden wins, because they are just too unreliable.”
The diplomat believes that the decline in relations began prior to Trump taking office. “In my experience, many of the younger politicians now in DC have a view of foreign policy shaped by 9/11 and the war on terror, not World War Two. They don’t really care about Germany or Europe anymore.”
Barker explained that this new view of the US has changed what kind of relationship Europeans now want from the transatlantic partnership. “The transition from Bush to Obama to Trump has solidified the European view that America can pivot dramatically every eight years. The question is, how do you safeguard against this when you know the next President could be Kid Rock?”
The EU official said that calm minds in Brussels are already trying to answer that question. “From the second we knew Trump was to be President, we started to see it as an opportunity to be more independent in certain areas like defense and geopolitics. You can see already how we are taking a dramatically different approach to China, Russia and Iran than the US.”
None of this is to say that the EU is seeking to drift from the US, but many feel now isn’t a bad time for Europe to start thinking more about itself and its place in the world.
“I hope the relationship can be repaired, of course. The transatlantic relationship is robust. But the ability for the two sides to work together, both bilaterally and as a united front on the global stage, has been undermined by the Trump administration,” said Schaake. “What that’s done is made the case for a more autonomous, actively geopolitical EU much more of a priority.”
CNN contacted the US State Department to ask if it agreed or disagreed with the assertion that American diplomacy under this administration has treated the EU as less of an ally than before. It declined to comment.
The crux of the problem for many in Brussels is a growing sense that maintaining or strengthening the transatlantic alliance is less of a priority for US than American interests elsewhere in the world. There is a perception that DC now wants a more transactional relationship with Brussels, which would ultimately see Europeans defer to US priorities on trade, NATO funding and diplomacy
For a continent that has for decades relied on its bigger brother as it recovered from some of the bloodiest wars in history, that presents a potentially alarming new reality: This is it, you really are on your own.