Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Valletta — The EU often struggles to conceal its splits, but they are nothing compared to the chasm opening up in its relations with the US. With US President Donald Trump forecasting the unraveling of the EU, sowing division between member states and cheerleading for Brexit, EU leaders arrive in Valletta, Malta, at their first summit since Trump unleashed his inaugural whirlwind, more exposed than ever. The superpower which, until now, has bought their goods, paid for their security and ratified their values has suddenly become an uncertain partner.

"Europe has its own destiny in its hands," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday. "The clearer we are, how we define our role in the world, the better we can maintain our transatlantic relationship."

In response to Trump, EU president Donald Tusk is calling for an extraordinary show of unity. In a letter to the bloc’s leaders this week, Tusk ranked Trump’s broadsides alongside Russian aggression, an assertive China and radical Islam as threats to the bloc’s future.

"The challenges currently facing the EU are more dangerous than ever before," Tusk wrote. "In a world full of tension and confrontation, what is needed is courage, determination and political solidarity of Europeans. Without them we will not survive."

Immigration flashpoint

The one-day summit offers Europe an opportunity to make a statement of those values. Long before Trump ignited protests across the globe with his immigration ban, the Malta meeting was planned as a discussion on refugee policy. Trump’s decision may not prompt any immediate change to the European approach, but it serves to concentrate the minds of leaders who have struggled to find common ground.

"There is no hiding place anymore," said Shada Islam, director for geopolitics at the Friends of Europe think tank in Brussels. "The Valletta summit should be a chance for the 28 EU leaders to take a hard look at how Europe is going to conduct itself in the Trump era."

Faced with the biggest influx of migrants since the Second World War, Europe’s leaders have, for two years, failed to unite around a response and watched social cohesion fray across the bloc as nationalists profited and the pillars of EU integration wobbled.

Several governments reintroduced checks along frontiers with other members, some refused to take part in refugee burden-sharing, while others voiced doubts about a deal with Turkey that offered authorities in Ankara cash, visa liberalisation and a vague prospect of future EU membership in return for stemming the flow of migrants.

George W Bush

The summit’s response to Trump’s immigration policy is likely to emphasise European values, EU officials said. While taking a tough line on illegal migration, the officials leading the talks are likely to push for more aid to the countries refugees are fleeing and for more action against human-smuggling. It wouldn’t be the first time an assertive US president has helped forge a consensus in Europe — George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 encouraged one of the closest periods of Franco-German co-operation of recent times.

Now, as then, Britain is the outlier with Prime Minister Theresa May repeating Tony Blair’s role as the world’s envoy in Washington, struggling to rein in the US administration’s more controversial instincts. After being caught out by Trump’s migration ban just hours after she was courted in the White House, May will tell EU colleagues that she wants a strong partnership between the UK and the EU on migration even after Brexit.

The EU is not "threatened" by Trump "but I do think there’s room for explanations because sometimes I have the impression that the new administration does not know the EU in detail", European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said.

Still, any display of unity will likely do little to alter the more fundamental differences between EU nations.

Turkish tension

Agreeing to stem arrivals is easier than the question of what to do with those already in the bloc, and Hungary is leading opposition to a German-backed plan to distribute refugees across the EU under a quota system. The flow of refugees to Europe has fallen dramatically since its peak in the second half of 2015 when as many as 10,000 migrants a day were crossing into Greece. But that decline hinges on the accord with Turkey, which looks more fragile by the day.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to throw open Turkey’s borders, accusing the EU of failing to keep its side of the deal. If Greece and Germany don’t extradite fugitive Turkish military officers involved in July’s botched coup attempt, the deal could collapse, Ilnur Cevik, an aide to Erdogan said this week.

Trump’s tactics

EU governments are also divided over the economic sanctions against Russia, encouraged by President Vladimir Putin’s offer of lucrative energy deals to some while his fighter jets make incursions into the air space of the Baltic states. Trump appears to have similar tactics, tapping into resentment in southern Europe over the bloc’s German-dominated economic policy and promising the UK a favourable trade deal as he predicts others countries will follow Britain through the exit.

"Donald Trump wants Europe to be split and weak," said Manfred Weber, leader of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament and an ally of Merkel, on Wednesday. "In Valletta, EU leaders must show the world that Europe is standing up for its values."


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