If the pillory by the US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, does not register a crystal clear intent of the Trump administration to dominate the global trade stage, then nothing else will. This week Sondland slated Phil Hogan, the imminent EU trade Commissioner, in a preliminary sniper fashion. The swaggering Hogan had elected to acknowledge his impending EU portfolio by flooding the Irish RTE radio waves last week expressing, without mincing his words, his intent to spare no effort at cautioning Trump about his much publicised erroneous conduct on trade. Hogan, who is a veteran Irish politician, authenticated his plan stating he is hopeful it will potentiate a behavioural modification in Trump. He elaborated that Trump might responsively forsake his reckless etiquette he continues to exhibit, moderately so. Additionally, Hogan also cited Trump’s description of the EU as “a security risk” disapprovingly.
Matters reached a crescendo when Sondland retorted, castigating Hogan through the POLITICO EU Confidential podcast, branding his statements as unhelpful and very condescending. Quoting Sondland verbatim, “saying you’re going to teach President Trump how trade works…” cannot be viewed as anything but a very condescending comment.” He further cautioned against the perils of entrusting the helm of the EU trade portfolio to an individual “whose sole approach is belligerence.” Sondland highlighted that such an approach might eventuate an impasse and a stalemate, warranting an unfavourable response from those affected. Without elaborating who those affected might be, it is evident that Sondland was mainly referring to Trump, especially his hardball stance when confronted by parties with whom his trade demands do not strike a chord. Look no further than China.
Sondland’s injurious tirade at Hogan, who is currently serving as the EU Agriculture commissioner, before he even assumes his responsibilities as an EU Trade Commissioner, is as good as an unprecedented warning shot to the EU. It is evident that Hogan has either kicked a hornet’s nest or touched a very sore trade-related US nerve. Sondland reviled Hogan whilst cautioning that the US expects him to rather vigorously advocate on behalf of the whole EU bloc instead of setting out his own individual agenda. When reminded about Trump’s habitual and correspondingly forceful rhetoric, Sondland hastily drew a distinction between language used by political leaders and that which is appropriate for ministers and negotiators. A credible analysis is Sondland expects Hogan to maintain a moral high ground, since his forthcoming portfolio commands he be held to a superior standard compared to Trump’s.
Like manna from heaven, just the next day and hot on the heels of Sondland’s caustic verbal attack, the World Trade Organisation ruled in favour of the US in the protracted transatlantic trade dispute with the EU over subsidies to Airbus. His reaction to the ruling demonstrates a buttressed resolve, as he confidently asserted that if it fails to elicit an end to Airbus subsidies and the recovery of damages, then the US will suspend concessions and resort to tariffs. He further declared that Trump will ultimately make this decision, and is prepared to act hastily should circumstances command. There is sure no doubt to the EU that this is no empty threat. Trump has so far followed through on every single ultimatum directed towards less amicable parties. It could well be that Hogan’s stated intention of offering a free lesson to Trump on trade might not age well.
In an act which could be interpreted as an extension of an olive branch, Sondland reiterated his recently expressed hopes of hitting a reset button in the relations between the US and the EU, once the new leadership team is all in place. He also proffered that the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had clarified during the recent visit to the EU that Trump intends to actively participate in the mending of the impaired US-EU relations. During his visit, Pompeo also voiced that the EU Commission President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen, EU Council President-Elect Charles Michel, EU parliament President David Sassoli and EU foreign policy nominee Joseph Borrell would be invited to Washington early in their terms. If this fiery reprimand to Hogan by Sondland does not coerce the EU into subjection, then the world might as well brace itself for a great showdown between the US and the EU, whose likelihood will be fatal to the already fragile relations. It would be in the best interest of both parties not to embark on such a primrose path.
Odds are the impetus for Sondland’s vigorous rebuttal is a selfish bulwark around his diplomatic position than at protecting the US interests. Sondland is currently facing an impeachment enquiry in the US along with Trump, thus, could cost him the favourable treatment he once enjoyed from Trump. Presidents are well known to deploy their loyal friends to the plum EU envoy position as an expression of gratitude for their loyalty. Sondland had donated a million dollars to the Trump inaugural committee, so his deployment was arguably well anticipated. Currently, Sondland is a central figure to the Trump impeachment proceedings whose motion was tabled by the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He betrayed this loyalty when he reneged on his initial perjurious averments of lacking an awareness of the withholding of the US military aid for Ukraine in exchange for the probe on Trump’s presidential rival, Joe Biden, and his son who served on the board of the Ukrainian gas company. Whilst Ukraine is not a Member State of the EU, it is party to the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, so the potential implosion of the transatlantic situation might inevitably sink the US-EU trade relations to an unprecedented nadir.