European leaders launched a series of attacks on Donald Trump over his anti-EU rhetoric on Friday, accusing him of a lack of respect, as Theresa May’s attempts to position herself as a bridge with the new US president were roundly rejected at a summit in Malta.
Trump’s conduct was scorned by prime ministers and presidents, with the French leader, François Hollande, warning there would be no future for Europe’s relations with the US if this future isn’t defined in common.
At a working lunch at the talks in the Maltese capital, Valletta, the British prime minister appealed to other leaders to work “constructively and patiently” with the American president. Addressing reporters, however, Hollande said: “Of course it is not about asking one particular country, be it the UK or any other, to represent Europe in its relationship with the United States.
In a while, France will be the only permanent member of the security council to be also a member of the EU when the UK leaves.
Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian president, offered a withering verdict: I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.
Asked about relations between Trump and May, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, revealed she had not personally spoken to the British prime minister about her visit to Washington, but she had been left gratified after May expressed to her a belief in a “strong European Union”. A planned bilateral meeting between the two leaders was, however, cancelled at the last minute.
A Downing Street spokesman said the two leaders had spoken during a “cultural walk” between the main talks, making a later meeting unnecessary.
Merkel suggested in a press conference following the day’s talks that Trump’s election made it all the more crucial for the EU to strengthen its own defence and repeated her opposition to his ban on nationals from seven majority-Muslim nations.
From our side, we work on the basis of our shared values. We want to bring about transatlantic cooperation, she said. There will be areas where we disagree. Fighting international terrorism is not something that will justify throwing a general suspicion on people of a certain faith or a certain origin.
The debate concentrated over lunch [on] where we stand as the EU. It was repeatedly stated by people at the table that Europe has to forge a common position and act in accord with each other and that we have our destiny in our own hands. There are areas where we can cooperate more closely … it encourages us to increase our common defence.
This applies to Germany. We need to invest more in our defensive capabilities.
While the summit in Malta was primarily about the need to stem migration through the Mediterranean and discuss the future of the EU, talk about Trump took up a significant portion of the meeting.
The tone of the day was set when leaders arrived in the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta and took turns to attack Trump’s behaviour since entering the Oval Office.
The Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, said Trump’s ban on travellers from some Muslim-majority countries was highly problematic. He added: We should win these countries as allies in the fight against [radical] Islamism, not as adversaries, and we shouldn’t corner them.
He went on to highlight what he described as America’s “responsibility for the refugee flows through the way it intervened militarily” in the Middle East.
The Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, said Donald Trumps travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries was ‘highly problematic’. Photograph: Domenic Aquilina/EPA
He said: “It’s not acceptable for the international community if America shirks responsibility. We need to make this clear to our American friends. I’m convinced that there will be a high degree of unanimity [among EU leaders] on this question … The tangible aspects of Trump’s politics are raising some concern.”
May, with the UK’s recently appointed permanent representative to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, by her side, was one of the few leaders not to comment as she entered through the door of the Grand Master’s Palace.
But an animated Hollande made clear his dismay at Trump’s behaviour. He said: It cannot be accepted that there is, through a certain number of statements by the president of the United States, pressure on what Europe ought to be or what it should not be.
We are partners. There should therefore be some respect. We did not build Europe to be divided, or against the United States.
Asked what he thought of EU leaders who were leaning towards Trump, Hollande said: Those who want to forge bilateral ties with the US are of course well understood by the public, but they must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.
What matters is solidarity at the EU level. We must not imagine some sort of external protection. It exists through the Atlantic alliance, but it cannot be the only possible route, because who knows what the US president really wants, particularly in relation to the Atlantic alliance and burden-sharing?
We in France have a defence policy. We fear nothing … We must have a European conception of our future. If not, there will be in my opinion no Europe and not necessarily any way for each of the countries to be able to exert an influence in the world.
The president of the European council, Donald Tusk, later sought to talk up Britain’s position. He said: We have no illusion that in the future we will be 27 – it is for this reason, because of Brexit. But our intention is we need as strong a transatlantic relationship as possible and the UK can, inside the EU or outside the EU, be very helpful.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said he did not feel threatened by Trump but voiced his concern that the US administration was not on top of world affairs. There is room for explanations because of the impression that the new administration does not know the EU in detail but, in the EU, details matter, he said.
At the end of the summit, Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe, said European leaders were right to speak out. We had a very open discussion with regard to developments in our transatlantic partnership and developments in the United States.
Obviously, there was concern among the EU28 on some decisions that are being taken by the new US administration and also some attitudes that are being adopted by this administration.
Nevertheless, there was no sense of anti-Americanism. There was a sense that we need to engage with the United States just the same, but that we need to show … that we cannot stay silent where there are principles involved.
As in any good relationship, we will speak very clearly where we think that those principles are being trampled on.
In a lighter moment, asked who was the biggest threat to the EU, Trump or Putin, Juncker responded: Me.
Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, boosted Theresa May’s hopes for an early deal on the rights of UK citizens living in Europe. Photograph: Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters
May’s hopes for an early deal on the rights of UK citizens living in the EU after Brexit were given a boost as her Spanish counterpart endorsed the plan.
No 10 said Mariano Rajoy backed May’s hopes for an early deal during talks on the margins of the summit. They discussed the issue of reciprocal rights, and agreed it would be good to get agreement on this issue early on in the negotiations, a source said.
Boris Johnson attempted to deepens ties with his US counterpart during a phone call on Friday in which it is understood they discussed a commitment to Nato as well as Yemen, China and Russia.
The UK foreign secretary wrote on Facebook: Just had a great call with newly appointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. We reaffirmed our shared goals and will work together towards success and solutions to the global issues we both face.
The men also spoke positively about May’s visit to meet President Trump and agreed to meet face to face before the G20 meeting in Germany later this month.
It is understood they spoke for about 10 minutes and got on well, with Johnson reaffirming a British commitment to shared goals, and to working even more closely together.