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Brussels Notebook: Trump Arrives In EU Capital Rediscovering Its Mojo

U.S. President Donald Trump (center) walks beside Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (right) upon arriving at Brussels airport on May 24.
U.S. President Donald Trump (center) walks beside Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (right) upon arriving at Brussels airport on May 24.

BRUSSELS -- When it became clear late last year that Donald Trump would be here to visit both EU and NATO headquarters, there was some concern, if not downright apprehension, in the air. This was, after all, a man who had called the military alliance "obsolete" and who appeared to support both Brexit and French far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who regards the European Union as one of the continent's big evils.

Fast-forward to the week of the U.S. president's first visit to the Belgian capital, which begins on May 24, and the Europeans seem a lot calmer.

"We have always been regarded as the little brothers in this relationship, getting lectures by the Americans on how to run the economy and the need for us to stick together and reform," a diplomat from an eastern EU member state tells me, continuing, "but for the first time, it seems like we almost have the upper hand."

While Trump might be enjoying a welcome break from the tense atmosphere in Washington, the European Union has seemed to rediscover its mojo just a few months after arguably teetering on the brink of collapse.

"Trump will find an EU that has got some of its confidence back," an EU official tells me, pointing to signs that the bloc's economic prospects are brighter than they've been in many years and that the EU seems to have weathered a migrant crisis that almost wrecked its passport-free Schengen zone back in 2015.

"Ironically, it seems like his election and Brexit have concentrated the mind in Europe -- suddenly we are more united than ever," says another European Council diplomat. The same source argues somewhat gleefully that the populist bandwagon that conquered both the United States and Britain was halted in Europe with the election of pro-EU forces in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, adding that EU standard-bearer par excellence Angela Merkel looked poised for victory in Germany in September.

'The Meeting Is The Message'

Reporters in Brussels may struggle to emerge with anything meaningful from Trump's visit.

"Damage limitation on the American side," says an EU source with insight into the planning of the meetings. The U.S. head of state will have just one hour on May 25 to squeeze in talks with EU Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini. Hardly any time for any policy decisions. Or, as one diplomat from a northern member state puts it, "the meeting itself is the message." And there are no press conferences or statements in front of cameras planned for afterward.

The same appears to be true of the NATO meeting that evening. After an opening ceremony for the new billion-euro NATO headquarters and the unveiling of a 9/11 memorial, just one working session will follow at which each of the 28 heads of state will speak for two to four minutes. As with the EU meeting, the NATO gathering is not an official summit so no agreement on any final declaration is required. And as with the EU meeting, Trump is expected to depart without a press conference. In fact, it looks like he might not face any direct questions from journalists on Belgian territory.

The NATO calm is evident, too.

"We are preparing for this meeting [just] as we are for any other meeting with a U.S. president," a NATO source says, adding, "It really isn't any surprise to us that he will ask the European allies to spend more on defense and for NATO to do more in the fight against terrorism." And Trump's demands are being addressed, at least cosmetically: European allies have promised to present plans later this year for reaching the defense-spending target of 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024.

'Well Choreographed'

In fact, the only real decision that is likely to be made at this week's meeting is whether NATO as an organization will join the U.S.-led coalition to counter the militant group Islamic State (IS).

"Of course, we cannot prevent some late-night Twitterstorms by the president," a diplomat from a larger NATO ally concedes in a reference to Trump's penchant for communicating via his favorite social-media platform. But he quickly adds, "This meeting is well choreographed; no surprises are expected. It is for him to get to know the organization better and a good opportunity for us to show some of the transatlantic unity that might have been missing lately."

A senior diplomat with experience with both the EU and NATO tells me that, when Barack Obama came to town, staff used to make sure to reschedule their day to catch a glimpse of the U.S. leader.

"For Trump," the diplomat says, "civil servants who don't need to attend the meetings have already booked their trips far away from Brussels for the impending Ascension long weekend that coincides with [Trump's] visit."

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.