Trump Seems to Hate the EU. Is It Because He Already Had a George W. Bush Florida Orange Juice Moment?
The United States has had to back down twice in the past 16 years in major trade disputes with the European Union.
Compared to the Trump Era, December 4, 2003, was a day back in a simpler time, a nicer time in international politics, at least for the West – although both the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had already happened.
Yet, so much stuff hadn’t: the 2008 Global Economic and Financial Crisis, the resurgence of Russia, the full-fledged rise of China, and the deepening and widening intra-Western Trans-Atlantic rift.
Still, December 4, 2003, was especially notable in so many ways, including for its repercussions on precisely on intra-Western, EU-US, North America – Europe relations.
It was the moment when the European Union triumphed over the United States in a trade dispute over the new US tariffs on steel imports.
Not only was this the most categorical display of the power of EU unity, and the Union’s tremendous global weight in matters in trade and economy but it was a case of ingenious diplomacy mixed with international law in which the EU exploited the peculiarities of the American electoral system threatening to slap retaliatory tariffs on what can only be described as “politically sensitive goods”.
The steel tariffs had been imposed in 2002 by the spunky, can-do administration of then US President George W. Bush, and were immediately disputed by the European Union, which took to case to the World Trade Organization.
As the WTO ruled the US steel tariffs were illegal, and that the EU was entitled to imposing retaliatory measures, the European Commission (led at the time by Italian Romano Prodi) the EU executive which is empowered to speak on behalf of the entire Union at least in matters of trade, came up with an initially surprising decision – to slap tariffs on orange juice.
Orange juice. And some other politically sensitive goods such as motorbikes.
This decision was probably the brainchild of some nerdy Eurocrats staffing those long-corridor offices in the mammoth Berlaymont Building in Brussels.
It was a genius one – a year before US President George W. Bush’s running for a second term, the propose EU tariffs on orange juice, motorbikes, etc. would have hit precisely Florida (the state that decided the Bush – Gore race in 2000), and some other “swing” states – a great peculiarity of the US electoral system the way it was established by America’s Founding Fathers in the 18th century.
Nothing other than EU tariffs on orange juice from Florida would have been so efficient, decisive, and quick in convincing George W. Bush’s neocon administration to back down.
Having had its EU Florida orange juice moment, George W. Bush rescinded the imported steel tariffs he had introduced 20 months earlier, on March 20, 2002.
It is hard to say whether this was a watershed event for the American political leadership but the EU victory in the US steel tariffs dispute might have been gotten at least part of it to start reconsidering whether the further rise and consolidation of the EU – largely an American creation from the time of post-World War II Europe – remained a great asset for the United States.
Despite all the common values, common history, common structures, and common interests, for anybody on the American side of the Atlantic viewing international relations in realpolitik terms, as a sum-zero game, etc., etc., the relative rise of the European Union probably doesn’t seem like such a great development.
This potential line of thought, though, was never articulated as explicitly and as bluntly as when Donald Trump got elected President, and, against the backdrop off all other oddities of his administration, he himself and some of its key members have kept lashing out against the EU, whose member states have been pretty much America’s only almost entirely unconditional allies for 75 years now.
Trump and his administration have been especially hateful of the EU with respect to Brexit, and their impudent encouragement of the UK to leave the Union, and on top of that to even do so without a Brexit deal, the so called hard or no-deal Brexit.
The latest of the Trump Administration’s EU bashing came this week from Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton who advertised a no-deal Brexit with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the British public with the prospects of a fast US-UK trade deal.
Bolton, however, also shyly admitted that such a deal wouldn’t probably take the form of a comprehensive all-out agreement but would likely be negotiated “in pieces” and stages.
Critics have reacted that to get even that, the UK would have to give the Trump Administration a lot of concessions and backing on all sorts of top-level global political issues.
Diplomatic tone and manners aside, it has got to be pointed out categorically that downgrading, diminishing, or even destroying the EU does not make sense from the point of view of America’s best interests. This is so self-explanatory that there is no need go into much detail here. It suffices to remind everybody that the West rests on two pillars – North America and (Western) Europe – the USA and the EU, respectively. And if one of those two pillars sabotages or undermines the other, that could lead to the collapse of the entire structure.
The fact that Brexit could actually prove a blessing, rather than a curse to the EU but effectively removing the countless British vetoes to the deepening and widening of EU integration is a whole other story.
Trump first seriously raised eyebrows on the other side of the Atlantic with his campaign speeches, and his first post-inauguration interview in January 2017, in which he openly bashed the European Union.
Then going all the way of his trumpist way, a month later, in another interview, Trump also declared his “love” for the EU.
“I do, sure. I have very good relations with the EU. But I thought that the UK would pull out of Brexit and I was right. … But the EU, I’m totally in favor of it. I think it’s wonderful, if they’re happy. If they’re happy – I’m in favor of it.” (in a Reuters interview in February 2017).
Trump and some senior members of his administration were thus going back and forth on their EU bashing, but mostly forth.
Up until the point when Trump finally had his George W. Bush Florida orange juiced moment in the middle of last year, a year ago. From there, it has been only going forth.
Trump tried for several months to build up pressure on the EU by lashing out against EU carmakers, and threatening to slap tariffs on EU-made cars. The European Commission representing the EU was quick to respond, including by threatening to hit back US exports worth USD 294 billion with tariffs.
Then EC President Jean-Claude Juncker did go in person to the White House for some pecks on the cheek with Trump, and then they both came out and declared that a US-EU trade war had been avoided, and the two pillars of the West would work to reduce their trade barriers to “zero”.
While not much progress has been seen since then in that regard, it is unconditional that was when Donald Trump had his George W. Bush Florida orange juice moment.
The EU leaders didn’t act out very ostensibly, and by backing down sooner, rather than later, Trump did manage to save face “far more”, with much less humiliation than George W. Bush 15 years before that.
That was how Trump learned relatively the hard way the lesson that there is one thing on which you don’t mess with the EU even if you are the United States of America: trade.
Trump’s “unorthodox” confrontational business/political style has largely been dismissed as a personal peculiarity by well-intentioned European (and non-European) officials and observers. Yet, anti-EU pro-hard-Brexit statements such as the most recent one coming from Trump’s NSA John Bolton are what can truly sour intra-Western, Trans-Atlantic relations.
They could be construed as conveying that anti-EU sentiments and the desire to take advantage of Brexit so as to bring the EU down a notch might go further, wider, and deeper in America’s ruling elite, and not be only specific to Trump’s controversial persona.
The US leadership has had two Florida orange juice tariff moments now (in 2003 and 2018), and some its growing apprehensions towards the EU would be understandable. Some might outrightly hate it – perhaps even Trump himself does.
Such sentiment would be wrong but understandable. But still wrong. Utterly wrong. And irrational.
And that’s not even mentioning that statements made by Trump and his adviser Bolton on the EU and especially on Brexit, projecting even a desire to distance the UK from the EU and shift it closer to the US economically, have sounded so malign and gruesome that they remind of the world of George Orwell’s book “1984” divided between three superstates – Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia.
In it, Britain, albeit right off Europe’s coast, is part of Oceania, which also includes the Americas, Australia, and South Africa, rather than of the continental superstate of Eurasia.
So with a possible hard Brexit to the liking of Messrs. Trump and Bolton, followed by Britain’s greater reorientation towards America, there would be one notable piece of the Orwellian 1984 puzzle falling into place.
Ivan Dikov is the author of the books “Got Nukes, Mr. Dictator? You Hold On to Them!”, “Madman Diplomacy: Is North Korea Trying to Bring Back Regime Change?”, and “Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together”, among others.
(Banner image: Donald Trump on Twitter)
(The photo of his kisses with Juncker was tweeted with the comment:
“Obviously the European Union, as represented by
@JunckerEU and the United States, as represented by yours truly, love each other!”)