European angst over Trump visit

US President Donald Trump waves as after arriving at the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy, 23 May 2017. Image copyright EPA
Image caption Mr Trump is on his first trip - and EU officials are looking to impress

"If Potus leaves here with the idea that the EU is in some way useful, that's it. Job done."

The words of a trusted European source when I asked about EU expectations for Donald Trump's first trip to Brussels as US president.

Not a far-reaching ambition, I think you'd agree.

But the EU is nervous. Very nervous.

For Brussels and for Nato whose new headquarters Mr Trump will also visit, this trip is about damage limitation with the fervent hope of establishing some kind of transatlantic chemistry.

The tone in Brussels has gone from off-the-record sneering when the erratic and unpredictable Mr Trump first won the November elections, to outright concern now that the implications of his presidency have begun to sink in.

Just to be clear, the European Union does not believe the US president will come here Brexit-cheering, predicting the break-up of the EU or calling Brussels a hell-hole as he has in the past.

That was Trump on the stump.

That rhetoric has improved after a rocky presidential start - the US president has now described Belgium as a "beautiful city" which may not be geographically accurate, but at least it was complimentary in sentiment. He also changed his initial dismissal of Nato as an "obsolete" organisation to being "no longer obsolete".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The EU and US flags fly in Germany during Mr Obama's farewell trip last year

But, as former US Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner warned me, the EU now needs to watch out for what the president doesn't say, rather than what he does.

These are his "omissions rather than his commissions," as Ambassador Gardner puts it, because his silence on certain subjects will be telling.

Brussels fears that President Trump has little time or understanding for more subtle "soft power" issues where the EU and US have long co-operated internationally, such as promoting human rights and good governance.

There was certainly no whisper of human rights concerns during the president's trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this week.

The EU also worries about the "Trump effect" on the Iran nuclear deal, Russia sanctions, Libya, Syria, and climate change agreements.

It fears that Trump's troubles at home with legal and political checks and balances will make him want to act tough abroad to keep up his appeal amongst supporters.

His "America first" pledge has the EU nervous about what protectionist measures he might take when it comes to trade, for example.

But then again, with Donald Trump you never know.

The leaders of EU institutions have one hour with him this Thursday to try to charm, cajole, and persuade - but during his short time in office so far, President Trump has shown he can do a 180-degree turn in an instant, should the whim take him.

That means whatever concessions or understandings the EU wins from President Trump now could be null and void within a week.

In these insecure times of cyber and street terror (this week's Manchester concert bombing was a chilling reminder), with a newly assertive Russia and a power-hungry China snapping at the West's heels, Europe would traditionally turn to the US for co-operation, reassurance, and even leadership.

But President Trump means that the post-World War Two EU-US balance is now precarious, says August Hanning, former head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service.

When I chatted to him about Donald Trump the word "Unberechenbarkeit" (unpredictability) popped up every third sentence or so.

"This makes Europe feel very insecure," he said, adding that Germany and Europe depend on the US for security stability.

Mr Hanning said the EU now found itself straddled between an unpredictable United States and a volatile Russia.

"But no reason for hysteria," he concluded. "Just look at Angela Merkel and her pragmatic approach."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The German chancellor had a close relationship with Mr Trump's predecessor

True enough, despite her meeting of minds and close relationship with Mr Trump's predecessor, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel turned up in Washington this March very much in "keep calm and carry on" mode.

It's election season at home and she knows her reputation for "handling" self-styled strongman leaders such as Messrs Trump, Putin, and Erdogan goes down a treat amongst German voters.

But handling President Trump is no easy matter. And it even has the combined political and military might of Nato feeling a bit wobbly.

Just as the EU is keen to underline its relevance to the US president during his visit this week, so too - very much - is Nato.

And to ensure that he gets the point, the organisation has prepared the unveiling of two artefacts to coincide with his visit: a chunk of the Berlin Wall, symbolising Europe's role in ending the Cold War, and some twisted metal from the World Trade Centre - the only attack in Nato history which prompted the organisation to invoke its Article Five - whereby an attack on one member country is interpreted as an attack on all.

Nato's Baltic members pray that President Trump will bear that in mind should Russia take aggressive action in their neighbourhood any time soon.

Neither the EU nor the Nato meetings with President Trump are tabled as "formal summits", and as such organisers have been able to insist on having no press conference afterwards.

The lingering suspicion amongst ever-cynical hacks, however, is that this is yet another clear sign of the "Who knows how on Earth this will all go?" feeling that has taken hold of Brussels this week.

Insiders say at the very least they hope to engage and inspire Donald Trump with architecture.

Both Nato and the EU will welcome the property tycoon president in brand new, shiny (and expensive) Brussels buildings.

And, yes, that may be real estate and not realpolitik, but on this first trip, it's the chemistry that counts, right?

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