EU Leaders attend summit, following Brexit vote (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

Europe Watches Trump Crisis With Frustration and Fatalism

(Bloomberg) -- European governments preparing for a looming round of major summits with Donald Trump are resigned to the fact that they will just have to learn to deal with a U.S. president whom they see as increasingly erratic.

As Donald Trump’s White House struggles to extricate itself from an almost daily cycle of controversy, government officials in three European capitals recognized that they have no choice but to try and work with the administration.

One official described the impossibility of trying to get the U.S. to engage in preparations for the NATO and Group of Seven summit in Sicily next week. Another said that U.S. allies may have to prepare for the worst if Trump’s predicament worsens. A third official said that while the situation is very worrying, Britain is trusting its institutional relationship with the U.S. is strong enough to endure any extended crisis in Washington.

The upside for Europe is that a distracted Trump may struggle to get his way on increased defense spending, protectionist trade policies and climate change. The reality, however, is that progress is impossible on issues such as refugees or the global economy without the world’s superpower at the table.

“It’s very difficult to know what to believe, what are the missiles, what are the decoys,” said Anthony Gardner, former U.S. ambassador to the EU. “There’s no point in being overly critical, it would be counter-productive.”

Gardner, who left his post in Brussels when Trump took office, advises Europeans to “wait until the dust settles.”

Seeking Clarity

What European leaders crave from Washington right now -- stability, predictability and clarity -- they are unlikely to get when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron face a leader whose ability to engage in global affairs is already being impaired.

One of the officials said one wouldn’t even run a business the way Trump runs his government, while another cited preparatory talks for the G-7 as an example of the challenges they face. The main problem as they see it is that the U.S. is no longer able to communicate an established policy line, with diplomats attending pre-summit meetings with little or no guidance for talks.

The result is little in the way of agreement, and a real risk the G-7 concluding statement will be “empty” with nothing substantial to say on climate or the economy, the official said. The European officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

“Even in areas where the Europeans have differences with the Trump administration, they would prefer a stable and predictable U.S. counterpart with whom they can engage constructively to a disorganized and crisis-ridden White House,” said Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment based in Washington.

White House officials are trying to shift the focus back to the president’s agenda, particularly the trip. On May 16, a day after reports emerged that Trump shared classified information with Russian diplomats, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster briefed reporters on the president’s itinerary, yet the session was dominated by questions about the disclosures.

Political Schizophrenia

In Russia, Vladimir Putin is also becoming frustrated, albeit for different reasons. Speaking to reporters in Sochi, the Russian president said that the U.S. has become engulfed by “political schizophrenia” surrounding Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, wrecking efforts to foster a new era of partnership between their two countries.  

Allegations that Trump passed highly classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are intended to incite “anti-Russian sentiment,” he said, and those making such claims “either don’t understand that they are harming their own country, which means they are just dumb, or they understand everything and then they are dangerous and unscrupulous people.”

While the Europeans are deeply unsettled by news that Trump shared secret information with the Russians -- and without the consent of the ally that provided it -- they are too dependent on cooperation built up over decades to even think of cutting off intelligence.

“We continue to work together and we have confidence in that relationship between us and the U.S., that it helps to keep us all safe.” Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters in London on Wednesday. France, Germany, Israel and Australia echoed that view.

Other European officials said that relations with the U.S. are going better than they thought they would when Trump was elected. One security official said he’s relieved that Trump has toned down his negative rhetoric on NATO. An EU official said next week’s summits should go fine even though underlying differences and tensions are unlikely to be overcome.

The sheer unpredictability of Trump in the foreign-policy arena has become “a geopolitical wildcard,” according to Arun Pillai-Essex, an analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a London-based political risk firm.

The upshot, he added, is that “allies and adversaries are forced to guess how the White House will confront some of the world’s thorniest issues.”