British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have tried, and often failed, to curb what they see as President Trump’s worst instincts toward nationalism and isolationism — viewing themselves as a bulwark against a U.S. president who doesn’t share their belief in international cooperation.
Now, each of these European leaders has been politically weakened at home by ripples of those same forces in their own countries. This has left the “Big Three” of Europe with even less leverage in their diplomatic and trade disputes with Trump, who has cheered for Britain’s divorce from the European Union and blamed Macron and Merkel for bungling their responses to populist tides.
This new dynamic, combined with Trump’s inward focus as he looks to reelection and the uncertain outcome of the special counsel investigation, is leading analysts to predict further drift and disagreement between the United States and its closest transatlantic allies, with each of the four leaders expected to view the world more through the domestic threats they face than the foreign policy challenges they share.
“Europe’s own problems are going to be so significant — managing Brexit, managing a German political transition whenever that happens, managing what’s happening with Hungary, Poland,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We see Europe beginning a fragmentation scenario where it’s more difficult” to lobby Trump or argue against his distrust of the E.U. and collective trade negotiations.
Trump has welcomed the populist, right-leaning governments that have taken power in Hungary and Poland.
Since Trump saw May, Macron and Merkel two weeks ago at the Group of 20 economic summit in Argentina, May was forced to fight for her job against a revolt within her Conservative Party, and Macron beat a humiliating retreat from a planned tax increase in the face of riots and protests in Paris.
Merkel had already announced that she is stepping down as leader of her party and will not stand for reelection as challenges from the right and left undermined Europe’s longest-serving democratically elected leader.
“The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Dec. 8, referring to the international climate agreement he opposes. “Chanting ‘We Want Trump!’ Love France.”
The French “yellow vest” protesters were not, in fact, chanting support for Trump, but he correctly diagnosed the mostly working-class demonstrators’ fury over taxes tied to climate protection.
Trump has appeared to delight in Macron’s misfortune since the young French leader issued a blistering critique of nationalism and great-power competition during a ceremony last month marking the centennial of the World War I armistice. Trump, who traveled to France for the event, glowered nearby.
“The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%. He was just trying to get onto another subject,” Trump tweeted two days after the visit. “By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people-and rightfully so!”
He added: “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”
On Wednesday, Trump cited a fatal terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg in his budget fight over a border wall to combat illegal immigration, although the alleged gunman was French-born and had not crossed into the country illegally.
Trump has criticized Macron and Merkel for their handling of immigration issues, claiming both leaders have invited higher crime rates and the threat of terrorism. He has said Merkel squandered political capital by failing to understand common-man anger over a tide of refugees and migrants to Europe.
Merkel tried to focus on trade during her Dec. 1 meeting with Trump in Buenos Aires, while avoiding a repeat of their heated argument at the smaller Group of Seven gathering in June, German officials said. Trump heaped praise on Merkel during a brief greeting in front of reporters, leaving Merkel looking slightly startled.
“We have a tremendous trade imbalance, but we’re going to get that straightened out. It’ll be better and better, I think, as time goes by. Our military relationship is very good. I think we all understand each other,” Trump said then.
Trump has not commented publicly on May’s reversal of fortune. She survived a humiliating “no confidence” vote on Wednesday, forced by insurgents in her Conservative Party who say she compromised too much with Brussels as she negotiated Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U.
May’s political power was drained by the imbroglio, and it’s not over — she still faces opposition from the same members of Parliament and public hostility to her Brexit terms.
Trump has claimed he predicted the surprise outcome of the 2016 British referendum on continued E.U. membership, and he maintains ties to hard-line pro-Brexit British politicians who are critical of May.
Visiting Britain in July, Trump embarrassed May by criticizing her compromise, pro-business Brexit plan and warning that her approach could imperil any future trade deal between the United States and Britain.
“I would have done it much differently. I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me,” Trump said in an interview with the tabloid the Sun that was published in the midst of his brief visit. “The deal she is striking is a much different deal than the one people voted on.”
May later told a reporter Trump had advised her to sue the E.U. instead of pursuing the tortuous negotiations that continued through Friday. As it stands, May’s deal would preclude a separate U.S.-U.K. bilateral trade deal after Brexit is complete in March next year.
“I do not hold out much hope that Theresa May, whose skills really do not include brilliant persuasiveness one on one, will really moderate Donald Trump” on the issue of trade, said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations.
May, Merkel and Macron are in similar positions of weakness, Mallaby said, “in office but not entirely in power.”
Trump could decide at any time to carry out his threat of 25 percent tariffs on European cars, escalating a trade war that has already seen the president slap large tariffs on some metal imports from Europe and elsewhere in the name of fairness for American workers. Car tariffs would hit Germany hardest but would also affect automakers in Britain and France.
In the coming discussions with those allies over trade and defense, Trump might not want to be too quick with the “I-told-you-sos,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Weakened political leadership in the U.K., France and Germany is bad for America and bad for Trump,” he said. “None of these centrist leaders have the political capital to push through decisions that would be unpopular with their people. Supporting Trump’s America, even on issues that are good for Europe and for transatlantic relations, is profoundly unpopular today.”