When Theresa May was invited to have lunch with the European Union’s 27 other heads of state and government at the informal summit in Malta this Friday, expectations were that they would be talking about dealing with migration flows in the Central Mediterranean.
Instead, somewhat awkwardly for the UK prime minister, they will be discussing Donald Trump.
May’s decision to rush to Washington DC to meet the new US president so soon after his inauguration has raised a few eyebrows in Brussels. “We were surprised May allowed herself to be pulled into that so early, and that she saw an advantage in what has turned out to be at best a mixed bag,” a senior EU diplomat told BuzzFeed News, referring to the reaction in the UK to Trump’s ban on refugees and arrivals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“There is disappointment among some member states in what she’s been doing, and without due care and attention it could complicate Brexit,” the diplomat said.
But, the same official added, the 27 will also be curious to listen to what May has to say about Trump because she is the only EU leader to have actually met the new president.
After lunch, the heads of state and government (without May) will discuss the future of the EU as they continue to prepare for a summit in March in Italy, where they will gather to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s founding agreement, and chart a future without Britain.
“The lunchtime discussion will be about the international context, basically Trump, and in the afternoon the leaders will prepare for Rome, basically how to deal with Trump,” the diplomat said.
That Trump looms so large on the agenda at this week’s Malta summit will be seen as a further sign that attitudes (and concerns) in Brussels, and in number of European capitals, towards the American president have rapidly hardened.
In a letter sent to all EU member states (except the UK) on Tuesday, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, called the new US administration a threat to the EU, placing Trump in a list alongside alongside Russia, China, terrorism, and rising nationalist – and increasingly xenophobic – sentiment.
Tusk also said the EU should use the change in America's trade strategy to the EU’s advantage by intensifying talks with interested partners. The day after Tusk sent the letter, the European Commission announced it was accelerating trade talks with Mexico.
The change in tone among officials in several governments BuzzFeed News has spoken to over the past week has been notable. The diplomat described the initial approach – which they summarised as "wait and see if pronouncements turned into substance" – as “maybe naive” or “possibly wishful thinking”.
“Trump has quickly shown that this is his line and he has no intention of softening it or not following through," they said.
It is understood that the growing anxiousness that has led to the shift in the 27’s attitude has been driven primarily by two factors. First, the administration’s ban on refugees (strongly condemned by most EU leaders), which officials suggest is evidence Trump is prepared to take far-reaching decisions with major consequences.
And second, Trump’s outspoken and apparent hostility towards the EU. In a recent interview, the president said he doesn’t care much about whether the EU is separate or together (and indeed believes more countries will follow the UK out of the EU). The president also implied that he saw the bloc as a trade competitor, claiming "the EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade".
Meanwhile, the man tipped to be his ambassador to Brussels went on TV and compared the EU to the Soviet Union, hinting he wants to help bring it down just like the USSR. This prompted a number of members of the European parliament to suggest the EU refuse his accreditation.
“There is no precedent for any of this,” the diplomat said.
According to the same official, among the EU leaders most concerned about Trump will be German chancellor Angela Merkel (who has been on the receiving end of a number of direct attacks from the US president and his advisers). “His worldview is in contrast to hers,” the diplomat said. "She sees more than others the consequences of what could happen, and has been unusually outspoken."
However, not all of Europe’s governments perceive Trump as a threat to the EU's future. One official from a central European government insisted they continue to believe concerns about the new administration are exaggerated. "It's been only 10 days!" they said. They added that they interpreted Trump's apparent lack of concern about what the EU does literally. “He won't do anything," they said. "Indeed any criticism could make the EU more united, and besides, sometimes criticism can be good."
Among the minority that appear to be unconcerned by the new American president is Poland – its foreign ministry released a statement distancing itself from Tusk’s letter on the eve of the summit – and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who was the only EU leader to publicly endorse Trump.
In a speech last week setting out his vision to put Europe on the road back to competitiveness, Orbán cited the US president in saying that it is every country’s right to put itself first, and what a previous speaker had characterised as a danger, "I characterise it as a hope," Orbán told the audience.
He added that Europe should be doing deals with the US, China, and Russia because it was the clever thing to do. "The question is whether you would like to have war or deals" Hungary's prime minister said. "Clever guys would like to have deals."
Still, he went on to say that it was too early to forecast the extent and magnitude of the changes "the current shift in the character of the Western world will bring about because of the new leaders in America. Therefore I would advise all of us – myself included – to exercise caution."
Moving forward, Tusk's call for unity will be put to the test by the competing visions about the EU’s future, one of several challenges facing the 27 as they attempt to maintain a common front over both Trump and Brexit negotiations with the UK.
On Friday morning discussions between all 28 EU member states will focus on migration in the Central Mediterranean, and in particular from and around Libya amid what Germany has called "catastrophic" human rights conditions in the country as well as reports of concentration camp–like conditions in private prisons run by smugglers.
The Malta summit's aim is to announce a host of concrete measures to deal with the issue. Tusk wrote to the leaders earlier this week that the EU must "protect our external border while helping the Libyan authorities provide decent reception facilities on their territory." On Tuesday, Merkel called for the EU to do more to stabilise Libya: "We can't just talk, we must also do something," the German chancellor said.