Why Europe Is Worried About Donald Trump's Latest Remarks

The president-elect described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the UK's lead and leave the bloc.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t been shy about sharing his views about the world, in general, and Europe, in particular. He was criticized during the presidential campaign for questioning the value of NATO, praising the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, and linking terrorist attacks to the million or so asylum-seekers who have arrived in Europe since 2015. Trump’s supporters and political analysts attributed those comments to campaign-season rhetoric, and said he would pivot on these and other issues before the general election. But with less than a week before the inauguration at which he’ll be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Trump gave a joint interview to The Times (of London) and Bild, the mass-circulation German tabloid, during which he described NATO as “obsolete,” called the EU “basically a vehicle for Germany,” and said other countries would follow the U.K.’s lead and leave the bloc.

Trump’s remarks about the Atlantic alliance don’t quite amount to the rejection of the group, nor did he suggest the U.S. might abrogate its treaty obligations to its NATO partners as he appeared to last July. Indeed, when asked by the two publications if the U.S. would guarantee Europe’s defense in the future, as it has since the end of World War II, Trump responded: “Yeah, I feel very strongly toward Europe — very strongly toward Europe, yes.” But that came after he called NATO “obsolete,” and noted that only five of its 22 members—the U.S., Greece, Estonia, Poland, and the U.K.—were spending their share on defense, which under NATO’s guidelines constitutes 2 percent of GDP.

Trump’s remarks appear to conflict with those of James Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general who is his nominee for defense secretary, who said last week during his confirmation hearing that “if NATO didn’t exist today, we’d have to create it.” Mattis accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to break up NATO—and it’s that possibility that many European officials fear, as well. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, its continued support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, speculation that it has territorial designs over the Baltic states and Scandinavian countries, and its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have all led to the belief that Russian interests are at odds with Western interests. Traditionally, it was the U.S. that was the bulwark against possible Russian aggression in Europe—and European leaders fear Trump will not keep that commitment. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Trump’s remarks “caused astonishment and excitement, not just in Brussels,” where both the EU and NATO have their headquarters. NATO, he said, had heard the comments “with concern.” He added: “This is in contradiction with what [Mattis] said in his hearing in Washington only some days ago and we have to see what will be the consequences for American policy.”

Trump’s past remarks about Russia haven’t elicited much confidence, either. He’s suggested he’d recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, praised Putin as a strong leader, and appeared for a time to take Russia’s word that it didn’t interfere in the U.S. election though the intelligence agencies that he’ll soon be running have repeatedly said the opposite. He appeared to suggest in his latest interview that he’d be open to lifting sanctions against Russia in exchange for “some good deals.”

“For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it,” he said. “But you do have sanctions and Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”

Then there’s the future of the EU.

The political establishment in Europe and the U.K. are still reeling from last summer’s vote by Britons to leave the EU. Although the nature of the U.K.’s future relationship with the bloc is unclear, and the source of much political debate, the economic impact, so far, has been far from the catastrophe that was predicted before the vote. Trump was an early supporter of Brexit—and his interview this week with the Times was given to Michael Gove, the U.K. lawmaker who was a lead campaigner for the “Leave” movement. He doubled down on his earlier comments in his interview.

“People don’t want to have other people coming in and destroying their country,” he said. Adding later: “People, countries want their own identity and the U.K. wanted its own identity but, I do believe this, if they hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, so many, with all the problems that it, you know, entails, I think that you wouldn’t have a Brexit. It probably could have worked out but, this was the final straw, this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

“I think people want, people want their own identity, so if you ask me, others, I believe others will leave.”

Trump appears to be conflating thelongstanding opposition to immigration among some U.K. voters to increased immigration to its refugee policy. The U.K. pledged to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees last year, far fewer than other major European nations—though the fate of that commitment is unclear.

Trump also said in the interview that he doesn’t care one way or the other whether the EU is a single entity or several countries. U.S. administrations of both parties have promoted European unity for decades—though there have areas of disagreement.

“Personally, I don’t think it [a stronger EU versus stronger nation states] matters much for the United States,” Trump said. “I never thought it mattered. Look, the EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade, OK? So, I don’t really care whether it’s separate or together, to me it doesn’t matter.”

Those comments, in particular, appear to have rankled in Europe, where support for EU membership is high in most member states, even if there’s resentment toward some EU policies. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said: “The best response is European unity.” Speaking in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands.”

Merkel came in for special mention in Trump’s interview. He criticized the German chancellor’s open-door policy for Syrian refugees, calling it a “one very catastrophic mistake.” He also described the refugees who are fleeing more than five years of civil war as “illegals.” He elaborated on those comments about Merkel, who is facing re-election this year and opposition after several terrorist attacks in the country.

“I think it was a big mistake for Germany,” he said of the policy. “And … I think we should have built safe zones in Syria. … Would have been a lot less expensive than the trauma that Germany’s going through now.”

John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, criticized the remarks: “I thought frankly it was inappropriate for a president elect of the United States to be stepping into the politics of other countries in a quite direct manner,” he said on CNN. “He will have to speak to that, as of Friday he is responsible for that relationship.”

But of all the comments Trump made in his interview to the Times and Bild, it’s his remarks about trade that are most likely to upset Germany and others in Europe.” When asked about BMW’s plans to open a facility in Mexico in 2019, Trump responded: “I would tell them, don’t waste their time and money—unless they want to sell to other countries, that’s fine—if they want to open in Mexico … but I would tell BMW if they think they’re gonna build a plant in Mexico and sell cars into the U.S. without a 35 per cent tax, it’s not gonna happen, it’s not gonna happen. … They can build cars for the U.S., but they’ll be paying a 35 percent tax on every car that comes into the country.” The remarks caused shares in BMW and other German carmakers to fall.

The EU is the U.S.’s largest trading partner, and as such German officials would be likely to retaliate against a 35-percent tax on the automaker. Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s deputy chancellor and minister for the economy, told Bild in a separate interview that BMW’s largest factory was already in the U.S.

“The U.S. car industry would have a bad awakening if all the supply parts that aren’t being built in the U.S. were to suddenly come with a 35 percent tariff,” he said. “I believe it would make the U.S. car industry weaker, worse, and above all more expensive.”

When asked about Trump’s remarks that trade between the two countries was “unfair” because “you go down Fifth Avenue, [and] everybody has a Mercedes-Benz, [but] how many Chevrolets do you see in Germany?” Gabriel responded that U.S. automakers should “build better cars.”