Following US President Donald J. Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke with Stefano Silvestri, Italy’s former Undersecretary for State Defense (1995-1996) and a senior scientific advisor at the Institute for International Affairs, about the current challenges facing the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Federico Grandesso (FG): What is your opinion about President Trump’s visit to the UK?

Stefano Silvestri (SS): This time President Trump didn’t push to hard on Brexit and its polemics because his political counterpart in the UK is going to change. Boris Johnson is probably going to be the next Prime Minister. Trump reaffirmed the privileged relations that the two countries share between each other and he insisted, less on security, on bilateral relations where he proposed a preferential trade agreement that, at the moment, is not the solution to the Britain’s problems.

The relevant trade issue for the UK right now is to solve the uncertain future scenario with its biggest trading partner – the EU. On the other side, the UK is aligned with the EU on environmental issues, the nuclear non-proliferation strategy, and the Iran agreement. The reason why the two sides didn’t discuss that much when it comes to security and defence is because they know that their positions are still quite opposed to one another.

FG: What are the signals coming from France following the meeting in Normandy between presidents Trump and Macron?

SS: Regarding France, obviously there was a very impassioned and complicated disagreement with the US not so long ago, but in any case France is the “reference country” for the US in Europe, especially now that this role is no longer given over to Germany (by the White House). Even if the US has good relations with other EU countries like Poland and the Baltic states, from the strategic point of view, France remains a central player. At the D-day commemorations, there was without question a reconciliation between the two when it comes to optics and from a psychological perspective.

FG: What about the relations with Germany?

SS: President Trump sees trade as a central issue and he sees Germany as a big competitor with an important commercial surplus with, in particular, the US – in other words he sees Germany as a trade enemy. I think this is not a wise position, but the reality is clear. Now, after having tried to find an agreement, I think that the Germans have finally decided that there’s no agreement to be had and that probably it will be necessary to clash on the commercial level with Trump. I think the Americans are less committed to safeguard the trans-Atlantic alliance than at any other time before.  Therefore, they could take more offensive positions that, for the moment, we didn’t notice during the D-day commemorations.

FG: Also within the EU there are a whole host of disagreements between the bloc’s 28 members that still remain. How do you see the future? 

SS: Important divergences remain, as we said before, but the key flash point for a potential crisis with the US continues to be trade. Germany, Italy, and other countries are exposed and President Trump has said many times that he would like to re-balance the trade picture. This action is quite complicated and can’t be imposed by law. On the other side the EU position on the issue appears to be quite inflexible even if it could be adapted on a case-by-case basis. 

FG: After last November’s mid-term elections, there is a new Democratic majority in the US Congress. Can the EU count on the Democrats as a potential ally?

SS: The US congress will try to avoid possible trade wars and in this regard it could be seen as a sort of “ally”, but at the same time it will not completely support Europe’s position because it is still interested in enlarging production margins inside the US. The Congress is less protectionist than President Trump, but at the same time, it is subject to certain pressures from its voter base in states with high unemployment rates. The Congress could play the role of “moderator”, but not on every single issue. On NATO, the Congress will support Europe because it has a justifiably positive vision of the alliance. This is true for the Democratic party as a whole, as well as for part of the Republican party. 

FG: How do you see any future divergences in NATO?

SS: The Europeans will try to save the trans-Atlantic alliance. The big issue is what the Americans are going to do. At the moment, there are some evident positions again Russia that could be tempted to find other allies. If NATO will not be under pressure by further US requests of deployment in the Middle East after the negative experience in Afghanistan, I think the tensions are going to be manageable. There could be some divergences on how to confront Russia. In this case we will have to see the requests addressed by the most exposed NATO members.

FG: Do you have more concerns?

SS: Yes, this is one of the lowest points that we have reached in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Since the end of the Second World War, and through the Cold War, nobody ever put into doubt the functionality of the alliance. Some Americans, however, have started to do that. There are certainly some positive elements, but then there is Trump’s request for an increase of the defence budget. We know, however, that Trump doesn’t like to see a single EU initiative on that. In any case, for the next budget the EU has increased its investments for defence by €15 billion, a quite important sum, I would say.