BRUSSELS — When he arrived in the Oval Office for negotiations over their growing trade war, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, brought a small gift for President Trump, a renowned admirer of military commanders. It was a photograph of the cemetery in Luxembourg where Gen. George S. Patton is buried.
Mr. Juncker, a wily, if often maligned, former prime minister of tiny Luxembourg, added an inscription, alluding to the shared sacrifice of Americans and Europeans during World War II. “Dear Donald,’’ it read. “Let us remember our common history.”
Mr. Juncker left the Oval Office on Wednesday with a deal — or at least a truce — that for the moment has defused the Trump administration’s growing trade war with Brussels, while bringing relief across Europe, especially in Germany. Yet if Europe’s political and business leaders are cautiously optimistic that an economic crisis has been averted, they are also wary, given their history with Mr. Trump in the 18 months since he has taken office.
Even as Mr. Trump cast the meeting on Wednesday as a great success, and offered gratitude to Mr. Juncker, the question is whether the deal represents a meaningful improvement in the severely strained trans-Atlantic alliance, or is simply another example of the unpredictable approach of a president who has spent months mocking and undermining European leaders — even describing the European bloc as a “foe.”
“The question is, how much do you give in to a bully?” asked Maria Demertzis, the deputy director of Bruegel, an economic research institute in Brussels. “This could just be perfunctory, and if it just stops extra tariffs, that’s fine. But you can’t really depend on Trump. His understanding of global trade is bilateral balance, which is as good as arbitrary, given global supply chains. And it depends on what side of the bed he wakes up on tomorrow.”
For Mr. Juncker, the outcome was a triumph, even if he made concessions. The negotiations are also a reminder that Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, still dominate the European Union. Mr. Trump’s threat to impose large new unilateral tariffs on imported automobiles shook German business to the core — and it would also have had a large impact on the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Spain and other countries that are important suppliers and manufacturers to the German car industry.
Now the president has agreed to push that threat to the side as the two parties begin broader negotiations. The trade war erupted after Mr. Trump imposed tariffs onsteel and aluminum, and the European Union responded with retaliatory tariffs on iconic American products like bluejeans, bourbon and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Those tariffs will remain for now, but will be part of the negotiations.
“Juncker’s achievement was to get Trump to say publicly that he would reconsider steel and aluminum tariffs and not impose car tariffs in return for a negotiation,” said Guntram B. Wolff, director of Bruegel. “For the E.U., the gun is still loaded but it’s not pointed at our heads, so for us it’s a good moment to negotiate.”
Indeed, some analysts argued that the new negotiations effectively represent a resurrection, in some fashion, of the effort begun by former President Barack Obama — and halted by President Trump — for a free-trade pact with Europe, known then as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T.T.I.P. Together, the United States and the European Union comprise half of the global economy, and analysts were optimistic about the commitment by Mr. Trump and Mr. Juncker to work together to overhaul the World Trade Organization, especially given the rising power of China.
Focusing on the W.T.O. also better fits the European Union’s overall strategy, which is to defend the multilateral world order of rules and law — rather than the kind of bilateral deal Mr. Juncker and Mr. Trump just discussed.
For Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, the mere fact that Mr. Trump negotiated directly with Mr. Juncker, as the head of the European Union institution in charge of trade, is vital.
“There was a real danger that the unified position of the E.U. could break open if Trump singled out industries and countries on tariffs,” Ms. Schwarzer said. “Trade must remain an E.U. competence, otherwise the single market is meaningless.”
Mr. Trump has angrily denounced America’s trade deficit with the European Union, even as he has come under increasing domestic political pressure from farmers, businesses and the auto industry over his tariffs. On Wednesday, Mr. Juncker promised to increase purchases of American soybeans and American liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G. But Ms. Demertzis said it was less clear how quickly the Europeans could deliver on those promises — meaning that the immediate value for Mr. Trump may be political.
“Europe has decided to change its trade policies,” said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Center for International Political Economy, “which gives Trump something to sell to his political base.”
Tellingly, Bruno Maçães, the former Portuguese secretary of state for European Affairs and the author of “The Dawn of Eurasia,” points out that Brussels approved only last Friday some genetically modified American soybeans to be sold in the European Union, an old American demand that would have helped the Washington talks.
European officials said that their offer on soybeans was important for Mr. Trump and for the success of the meeting, given that roughly 30 percent of American soybean production has traditionally gone to China. “I thank you for that, Jean-Claude,” Mr. Trump said, going off-script from an agreed statement.
European officials and analysts acknowledged that Mr. Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on the auto industry was a powerful one that forced a European response, despite vows not to negotiate as long as the metal tariffs were in force. As for Mr. Juncker’s claim that the suspension of that threat was “a major concession,” Mr. Maçães was amused.
“So if I threaten to burn down a house unless the owner pays me, and refrain from doing it when he pays, there were concessions on both sides?” he asked.
Still, it was a great relief for Germany, whose foreign minister, Heiko Maas, welcomed the agreement to start talks. It shows, he said on Thursday, that “The answer to America First can only be: Europe United.”
In a speech in Tokyo, Mr. Maas also called for a strategic partnership among like-minded middle powers, like Germany and Japan, to preserve the liberal world order against big predatory powers like China, Russia and now, presumably, the United States.
Indeed, European leaders now seem to have concluded that the only way to deal with Mr. Trump is to negotiate with him — a stance Mr. Juncker and other Europeans once rejected as inimical to the global system.
For Ms. Demertzis, there are dangers in this new tactic. Not only does it cut against Europe’s stance as the great defender of the multilateral order, it also risks feeding the tiger, the unpredictable Mr. Trump.
“We haven’t seen the end of this, that’s for sure,” she said. “The only thing that drives the message home in Washington is bad outcomes. The E.U. must stay the course and use proportional measures to whatever comes out of Washington and take the heat until the message gets home.”
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