European Union leaders are seeking a common stand on U.S. President Donald Trump, now that they increasingly fear that campaign rhetoric will be turned into policy and further tear their troubled bloc apart
VALLETTA, Malta — European Union leaders on Friday vowed to remain united and defiant in the face of an onslaught of criticism from the new American president that has started to undermine the once-unshakeable trans-Atlantic relationship.
And they hit back in an increasing battle of words, underscoring how they fear that Donald Trump's campaign rhetoric will be turned into policy and further tear apart their troubled bloc.
EU chief Donald Tusk earlier this week moved the U.S. into a "threat" category for the EU, following several negative comments about the 28-nation bloc.
"Maybe the best evidence that we are together in this context was the fact that some of my colleagues have used a new nickname for me, spontaneously, which is 'our Donald,'" Tusk said Friday at an EU summit in Malta, highlighting the new divisions in the century-old alliance with the U.S.
French President Francois Hollande said "it cannot be acceptable" that Trump could put pressure on the EU through his declarations on Twitter. And he warned that Trump should not send any envoy to the EU that has criticized the bloc, which one potential candidate has done.
"To appoint an ambassador, better for him to believe in the institution with which he would have to work. It is as simple as that," Hollande said.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite pointed out that it was almost impossible to build a bridge with Trump because "today we're communicating with the United States mainly on Twitter."
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said that "Trump must be judged by his actions and not by his rhetoric and his election campaign. But now he has delivered enough actions that are worrying." He said the United States was partly responsible for the strong refugee flows toward Europe because of its Mideast policies.
"What has happened in the last few days are really not the values I'm fighting for," Kern's Luxembourg counterpart, Xavier Bettel, said, referring to Trump's ban on refugees.
Trump has questioned the NATO alliance linking North America and Europe, calling it "obsolete." In addition, hopes for a major EU-U.S. trade deal have already taken a deep dive amid worries of new U.S. protectionism under the Trump slogan "America first."
And adding insult to injury, Trump called the British decision to leave the EU — the most cathartic event in the bloc's 60-year history —"a tremendous asset and not a tremendous liability."
For France and Germany, there is only one solution to facing an unpredictable partner.
"Many countries have to realize that their future is first in the European Union, rather than who knows what bilateral relation with the United States," said Hollande.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said "the more strongly we are clear about how we define our role in the world, the better we can tend our trans-Atlantic relations."
Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni saw a "great opportunity" for the EU if the Trump administration turns out to be largely domestic-focused, leaving the way open for Europe to be what he called the "No. 1 trade superpower in the world."
"The question the EU must pose itself is — can it play a more relevant role than what it's has played up till now internationally?" Gentiloni said, adding that included being more engaged in defense.
He said an EU summit in Rome next month could be the occasion to rise to the challenge.
Even though Trump has spoken on the phone with Merkel, Hollande, Tusk and hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May in Washington, Europe keeps searching for how to understand the new American leader.
"Who knows what the president of the United States really wants (on NATO)?" Hollande said of the military alliance uniting most EU member nations with the U.S.
While leaders and diplomats say the cornerstones of the EU-U.S. relationship remain intact, the bad vibes are seeping out in EU member nations.
On Friday, the Portuguese parliament voted to condemn Trump's U.S. travel ban on Muslims and highlighted the United States' important role in promoting tolerance and human rights around the world.
In Sweden, a photo said it all. Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin posted on Facebook a photo of her signing the country's new climate change law while surrounded by seven female staff members. Swedish media noted it resembled photos of Trump in the Oval Office signing decrees surrounded by only male advisers.
Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed
Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rcasert