EU ministers meet to discuss Trump presidency


The election of as US president will act as a spur to Europe to co-operate more on defence, European leaders said on Sunday, as foreign ministers gathered for a special dinner in Brussels to discuss the implications of Trump’s stunning victory for European security, and the EU’s relations with Russia, Iran and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

In a symbolic display of independence from Europe, the UK foreign secretary, , was not attending the informal dinner, called at short notice, saying the meeting was not necessary. The foreign office said European leaders had been due to meet on Sunday anyway for a two-day general affairs council.

The French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was not due to be there either because he had a commitment to meet the new UN secretary general, António Guterres, in Paris on Monday.

Johnson’s absence however is designed to send a signal that the UK wishes to distance itself from some of the fierce criticism of Trump in . Johnson has urged his European colleagues to end their “collective winge-o-rama” about Trump’s election.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The foreign secretary will not attend the meeting convened for Sunday. There is a regular foreign affairs council meeting on Monday where a range of issues can be discussed in the normal way.

“We do not see the need for an additional meeting on Sunday because the US election timetable is long established. An act of democracy has taken place, there is a transition period and we will work with the current and future administrations to ensure the best outcomes for Britain.”

One UK source said it was “rude, arrogant and stupid to think the EU had to have a crisis meeting because of the outcome of a democratic election”.

The Foreign Office was instead underlining its determination to build close relations with Trump, a stance that has been unsettled by Trump choosing to meet the Ukip interim leader Nigel Farage on Saturday, making him the first UK politician to have a direct conversation with Trump since Tuesday’s election.

Ayrault appealed for calm on Sunday, saying: “Let’s stop talking about disarray, I do not understand why people are agitating. We must keep our cool.”

At the same, he conceded that Trump would act as a catalyst for renewed debate about a stronger EU defence force. He said Trump had indicated during his campaign he wanted the US to pull back from commitments abroad and cast doubt on US commitments to defend members.

“Trump said he wanted Nato countries to pay more and I’m sure he’ll want to sort out who pays what, but he’s unlikely to want to leave the Nato alliance,” Ayrault said.

The chairman of the Conservative EPP group in the EU parliament, Manfred Weber, often seen as being close to the German chancellor, , also urged Europe to overcome its paralysis, saying Trump could act as an amplifier and “force Europe to grow up … We must be able to defend ourselves – and do so quickly,” he said. “Trump will strengthen the need to establish a European defence community – and the EU states will finally take responsibility.”

Weber added: “With drones technology and cyberwar nothing is progressing nationally.”

Weber suggested the likely isolationism of Trump meant Europe would have “to assume the leadership role in the free world” in areas such as climate change, social market economics and exploitation.

The foreign ministers’ dinner called by the EU Council’s president, , will exchange notes on how far they believe Trump will follow through on his dramatic, but sometimes inconsistent, pledges to turn US foreign policy upside down, including over Russia, Syria, Iran and Nato.

The ministers will also have to decide on a whole host of issues how far to bend to the new climate in Washington and how far to assert European independence.

The European commission’s president, Jean Claude Juncker, has struck a tough tone saying Trump’s election poses “the risk of upsetting intercontinental relations in their foundation and in their structure”. He added it would take two years to explain how Europe worked to an ignorant Trump.

In the short term, the EU leaders will be seeking reassurance that Trump is not going to pull out of Nato, even if he wants the EU countries individually to spend more on defence.

The US contributes 70% of Nato’s spending, and Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs chief, has repeatedly urged the EU to do more to build an independent EU defence arm.

EU foreign ministers will also discuss whether Trump is going to reimpose economic sanctions against Iran, effectively abandoning the nuclear deal in which the EU played a major role.

It will also seek reassurance that Trump’s determination to forge new relations with Vladimir Putin will not lead to a fraying of sanctions over Ukraine. A European political consensus on their six-monthly renewal is likely to be harder to achieve

EU leaders are also likely to discuss whether the EU and the US are set to fall out over their strategy in relation to Turkey. Trump has suggested he approves of the increasingly authoritarian Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan.

In an interview published on Sunday, Erdoğan suggested he may stage a Brexit-style referendum to decide if his country should continue to seek membership of EU, saying his country’s patience is not infinite. He also vowed he would press ahead with reinstating the death penalty if his parliament urged him to do so, a move that the EU sharply criticised in a report on Wednesday.

Although Johnson is determined that the UK should be seen as an enthusiastic American ally, the UK has been at the forefront of the EU’s criticism of Vladimir Putin and would have to undertake a complete volte-face if Trump presses ahead with a promise to work with the Russian leader, including by dropping economic sanctions over the Russian annexation of Crimea and disruption in eastern Ukraine.

Similarly Trump has said he is willing to work with Russia and Assad to defeat Islamic State.

The UK has been one of the leading voices defending the Syrian uprising against Assad despite the presence of Islamic extremists fighting alongside the UK-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). The UK, including Johnson, has repeatedly accused Russia of war crimes in Syria and would find it hard to abandon the FSA.

But senior diplomats argue that the only way to influence the Trump administration is by refraining from public criticism, highlighting the points of agreement and trying to get as close as possible to the key decision makers. The UK ambassador in Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, claims to have forged close ties with important figures in the Trump team.

Johnson spoke on Saturday to Senator Jeff Sessions, who is tipped by UK diplomats to be the next US secretary of state or defence secretary.

The Foreign Office is under pressure from the independent diplomacy of Nigel Farage, Ukip’s interim leader, and from the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, who has close links with the American right. Johnson has said in the past that Trump is not fit to hold public office.