The state of transatlantic relations has come into question several times in the last few years. The once pro-alliance United States is now less interested in cooperation and more-so in self-preservation. Since the new year, President Trump has taken several actions which have sparked controversy in the transatlantic world. This has recently included backing out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), imposing tariffs on imports, and moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. These decisions have each aggravated the rift between the United States and Europe.

The United States and Europe have a long history of cooperation, however, there have been highs (Post-WWII and post-9/11 come to mind) and lows (the Suez Crisis (1956), the later part of the Vietnam War, and the post bellum years of the Bush presidency). These lows have historically seen the EU split into various camps regarding their stance on Washington’s policies. However, as Robert Cooper, long-standing EU and UK diplomat, states, “[Trump] is not just attacking Europe, he is attacking the world America built. He hates the EU, […] he hates multilateral trade. This is the post-war international order. If he is serious then it is serious.” Pierre Vimont, a French diplomat, also acknowledges previous lows in transatlantic relations but argues that in the past “there was a US global doctrine, you could agree to disagree or push back. Today, the difficulty is that we never know what will happen.”[i]

Indeed, the factor leading to such a high rise in tensions is the uncertainty that surrounds the current US administration. Amidst this period of international chaos, this executive summary aims to break down the three most pressing threats to a peaceful transatlantic partnership.

The Iranian question – The 2015 signing of the JCPOA was a positive sign for Iranian relations with the US and Europe. The deal ensured the easing of economic sanctions in return for the country’s allowance of inspection teams to regularly check on its nuclear facilities.[ii]

American Response – On May 8, 2018, President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal, announcing that the US would reimpose the sanctions previously in place. Additionally, Trump threatened any European countries that intend to continue dealing with Iran.[iii] This has created a rift between the US and the EU countries involved in the deal. Trump’s decision is in line with his infamous “America First” policy.

European Response – The EU has pledged to remain in the deal and will continue doing business with Iran despite the US sanctions. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker maintains that the EU has “the duty […] to do what [it] can to protect [its] European business.”[iv] The European Investment Bank will soon be allowed to lend to EU projects in Iran. However, European Businesses are worried that their ties with the US could be damaged should they continue doing business with Iran. France, Germany, and the UK are all still committed to the JCPOA and want to expand trade with Iran.[v] Following Trump’s decision, Iran made a list of demands for European countries that wished to continue the deal. However, Khamenei is sceptical that they will. He warned that he would resume nuclear activities should European partners fail to meet his demands swiftly.[vi] The Supreme Leader has already ordered preparations to do so.[vii]

Impending Trade War – Trump’s “America First” policy has shown itself heavily in the world of trade. In January, 2018, the US raised its import tariffs on solar panels and washing machines, a move which brewed discontent in the global market. On March 8th, 2018, Trump placed a 25 per cent import tariff on steel and a ten per cent tariff on aluminium that would apply to every country except Mexico and Canada, only worsening the situation. The US administration is currently also in the process of revising its trade approach towards Mexico and Canada, shifting the focus and interest of these countries more towards different markets, including the EU.

European Response –The EU Commission believes that this might lead to a larger trade dispute.[viii] European Council President Donald Tusk stated in March that the US and EU “should be aiming for greater cooperation.”[ix] Tusk also recommended resuming talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which were put on hold when Trump took office. European officials are concerned about Trump’s tariff increases but seem ready to enter an age of European autonomy. Both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have made statements about Europe’s responsibility to take matters into its own hands and no longer rely on the US to prosper.[x] Therefore, while a trade war is best left avoided, it appears that Europe is ready to be self-reliant. Peter Altmaier, Germany’s economy minister claims that a trade war with the US “would stretch not just to steel and aluminium but then perhaps to other categories of products like cars, […] textiles, and food.”[xi] His concerns are justified. Trump hinted towards a possible tariff on automobile imports on Twitter in early March.”[xii]

Recognizing Jerusalem – In 1950, Israel declared Jerusalem its capital, but most countries kept their embassies in Tel Aviv due to the political tensions with Palestine and never officially recognized Jerusalem as its capital. In 1995, the US Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as Israel’s capital and that the American embassy should be established there by 1999. Every President since 1999 has chosen to waive the act. Trump, however, did not and has moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, sparking tremendous international disagreement, to include Europe.[xiii]

European Response – European officials fear that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will set back the EU’s preferred two-state solution, involving a shared capital and an eventually independent Palestine. The Netherlands, perhaps Israel’s closest EU-ally rebuked Trump’s decision. Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra called the move “unwise and counterproductive.” The EU will continue to deny recognition to both Palestine’s and Israel’s claims to Jerusalem until a two-state solution is met. Trump’s decision has been met with a lot of emphatic and passionate push-back from leaders like Macron, Merkel, Charles Michel, and Federica Mogherini. This kind of dialogue between American and EU politicians is becoming a growing trend in the fraying transatlantic bond. [xiv] Trump’s decision has done nothing but weaken the bond.

Conclusion – The state of transatlantic relations is not looking up after a series of controversial decisions taken by the White House. Trump’s track record of fickle decision-making means that only time will tell if the transatlantic bond will hold strong. Regardless of Europe’s aims, Trump will be consistent in his inconsistency. We may discover that his “America First” policy, may very well leave America alone.


By: Austin Muraille


[i] Alex Barker, Jim Brunsden, Shawn Donnan, “EU grapples with Trump problem as US relations turn sour,” Financial Times, March 20, 2018a.

[ii] UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) [on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear programme], July 20, 2015.

[iii] Jamie Tarabay, “China, Germany to stay in Iran nuclear deal as Khamenei lists demands,” CNN, May 25, 2018.

[iv] “Iran nuclear deal: EU moves to avoid impact of US sanctions,” BBC, May 18, 2018.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] CNN, May 25, 2018.

[vii] Parisa Hafezi, “Khamenei says Iran set to boost enrichment capacity if nuclear deal founders,” Reuters, June 5, 2018.

[viii] Roderick Harte, “New US Tariffs: Potential Impact on the WTO,” European Parliamentary Research Service Blog, March 14, 2018.

[ix] Xinhua, “EU’s Tusk urges Trump to restart TTIP talks,” China Daily, March 15, 2018.

[x] Financial Times, March 20, 2018a.

[xi] Jim Brunsden, “Berlin warns EU-US trade war will spread beyond steel,” Financial Times, May 22, 2018b.

[xii] Andrew Buncombe, “Trump tariffs latest: US President threatens tax on cars imported from EU in angry tweet,” Independent, March 3, 2018.

[xiii] Cnaan Liphshiz, “Following Trump’s Declaration, EU Doubles Down on Jerusalem Policy,” Times of Israel, December 7, 2017.

[xiv] Ibid.