Brussels, Belgium, Feb 20 – US Vice President Mike Pence told nervous Europeans Monday that Donald Trump will remain committed to transatlantic ties, but warned NATO allies they must boost their defence spending in return.
Capping a European trip aimed at allaying fears about the new administration’s support, Pence said Washington’s backing for the EU remained “steadfast and enduring”.
“Today it is my privilege on behalf of President Trump to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union,” Pence said after talks with EU president Donald Tusk in Brussels.
European allies have been unnerved by Trump’s criticism of the EU as a vehicle for Germany, his praise of Britain’s decision to leave the bloc and his dismissal of NATO as “obsolete” even as he praises Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Pence pledged the United States would keep working with Europe to boost the world’s two biggest economies, fight terrorism and defend eastern EU states against Russian encroachment.
Tusk, a former Polish premier, said that Europeans “truly needed” the meeting with Pence and that the 28-nation bloc counted on “wholehearted and unequivocal” US support.
“Too much has happened over the past month in your country and in the EU… for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be,” Tusk said.
Pence also met European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg premier, who stressed that the United States “needs a strong united Europe.”.
– NATO ‘actions not words’ –
Scores of protesters gathered in the EU quarter of the Belgian capital during Pence’s visit, criticising the Trump administration’s attitude towards women, gay people and climate change.
Two female protesters went topless and carried banners saying “Pence get out of our pants,” while another placard read “Love Trumps Hate”.
At NATO headquarters, Pence said Trump expects NATO allies to make “real progress by the end of 2017” towards meeting a goal they set in 2014 of raising defence spending to two percent of GDP over a decade.
“If you don’t yet have a plan — these are my words, not his (Trump’s) — get one. It is time for actions, not words,” Pence told a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
So far, of the 28 NATO members, only the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia have met the two percent target.
“America will do our part but Europe’s defence requires Europe’s commitment as much as ours,” Pence said Monday.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis delivered a similar message at a NATO defence ministers meeting last week, saying Washington could “moderate” its commitment if allies fail to pay up.
Pence, Mattis and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have stuck close to established policy during their first foray into Europe despite Trump’s previous pronouncements.
But they have also been left to cope with their president’s unpredictable remarks, and by a growing scandal over the new White House’s links to Russia.
The vice president admitted on Monday he was “disappointed” that former US national security adviser Michael Flynn had given him “inaccurate” information about his contacts with Russia over US sanctions before he resigned last week.
However he said he fully backed Trump’s decision to accept Flynn’s resignation.
Pence also defended Trump’s criticisms of the media, whom the president has called “the enemy of the American people”.
“Rest assured, both the president and I strongly support a free and independent press,” he said.
“But you can anticipate that the president and all of us will continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts.”
– ‘Very positive’ –
Pence’s visit came two days after Trump referred, during a rally in Florida, to a non-existent Swedish terror incident and urged people to “look at what’s happening in Brussels” as he listed a series of European cities struck by deadly terror attacks.
Pence said the United States would remain “full partners” with the EU in fighting terrorism, a Trump priority.
He also pledged it would defend Europe’s “territorial integrity” and said the Trump administration will “continue to hold Russia accountable” for the violence in eastern Ukraine and demand that Moscow honour the Minsk agreements for a ceasefire due to begin Monday.
Trump is expected to attend a NATO summit in Brussels at the end of May and he has also been invited to meet EU leaders.
An EU source told AFP that Pence’s meeting with Tusk was “very positive”.
“Will it allay all Europeans fears about Trump? No but it was the best we could have hoped for,” the source added.