BRUSSELS — Vice President Pence assured nervous European leaders on Monday that the Trump administration is committed to “cooperation and partnership” with the European Union, as he sought to quiet fears that the White House wants to break up the 28-nation bloc.
Pence’s reassurance was a striking departure from some of President Trump’s comments over the past year in which he painted the European Union in dark terms. Trump described Brussels as “a hellhole” early last year, and he praised Britain’s decision in June to leave the E.U.
In his meetings with top E.U. officials, Pence offered a far more conventional vision of relations with the bloc.
“It is my privilege on behalf of President Trump to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union,” Pence said after meeting European Council President Donald Tusk, who represents the leaders of the 28 E.U. nations. “The United States’ commitment to the European Union is steadfast and enduring.”
Pence said he looked forward to greater coordination in dealing with economic matters and fighting terrorism. He urged peace efforts in Ukraine, promising to push Russia hard.
“We are separated by an ocean, but we are joined by a common heritage and a common commitment to freedom, to democracy and to the rule of law,” Pence said.
Tusk said he was satisfied with the meeting.
“Too much has happened over the past month in your country and in the E.U. Too many new and sometimes surprising opinions have been voiced over this time about our relations, and our common security, for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be,” said Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland. “The world would be a decidedly worse place if Europe were not united. It is in the interest of us all to prevent the disintegration of the West.”
Concerns about Trump’s attitude toward the European Union spiked when he said shortly before his inauguration that he was indifferent to the fate of the bloc, that it was primarily a vehicle for German economic interests and that he expected that more countries would split from the E.U. in the coming years.
Worries spiked even higher after a former U.S. diplomat, Ted Malloch, said he was in the running to become Trump’s U.S. envoy to the E.U. Malloch, a business professor based in England, believes in breaking up the union.
E.U. officials took the highly unusual step of ordering a review to outline how they might reject an ambassador. There’s been no confirmation from the U.S. State Department or the White House that Malloch is a candidate.
Trump also termed NATO “obsolete” last month, sending shivers through Eastern Europe, which relies on U.S. security guarantees to keep it safe from Russia.
Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis were deployed to Europe last week to try to calm fears about a shift in U.S. foreign policy attitudes that have otherwise remained constant since 1945. By and large, they outlined a policy toward Europe and NATO that bore only fleeting resemblance to Trump’s public comments about the institutions.
That left European leaders uncertain about how much faith to place in Mattis and Pence’s message over the weekend, which came at the same time that Trump called the news media an “enemy of the American people” and appeared to invent a terrorist attack in Sweden.
Both leaders pushed hard for an increase in European defense spending in meetings at the Munich Security Conference. Mattis delivered a stern message to NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, warning that the United States might “moderate its commitment” to NATO if other members fail to meet defense spending guidelines of 2 percent of their annual economic output.
Pressed Monday for clarity on what that might mean — the “or else” in the threat — Pence declined to offer specifics. “I don’t know what the answer is to ‘or else,’ ” he said, “but I know that the patience of the American people will not endure forever.
“The commitment that we have made to one another, that the American people are keeping with the people of Europe and NATO, is a commitment that the president of the United States and the American people expect our allies in Europe to keep as well,” Pence said. “But failing that, questions about the future we’ll just leave in the future as hypotheticals.”