Trump’s unpopular decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change undermines the objectives of the agreement while marking the lowest moment yet in an increasingly frail transatlantic relationship. But is it really all bad news?

Climate March in Washington D.C. on April 29, 2017. Picture by Mark Dixon, Flickr.


Withdrawing from the Paris agreement was the wrong decision. It is an embarrassment to the United States and a rebuke of rational discourse, traditional alliances and basic scientific fact. Europeans are justified in their dismay, and the move serves as an ominous sign for the viability of a cooperative relationship with the Trump administration for the next three-and-a-half-years.

By leaving the agreement signed by 195 world countries, Trump has recused the United States’ position as a global leader. Former Secretary of State John Kerry has called Trump’s decision “an irresponsible walking back of American leadership.” And, after a disastrous visit to NATO, Trump has shown his general disinterest in traditional foreign policy and that he is incapable of catalyzing a more robust transatlantic relationship, so the onus is on Europe to navigate the hostile waters ahead.

Nonetheless, now that the U.S. has made its bed, it is up to European heads of state to work together with U.S. governors, mayors, and industry leaders to not only continue to preserve the integrity of the Paris agreement, but to reap opportunity from less than ideal circumstances. Counterintuitively, there is ample opportunity to do so.

The EU Should Capitalize on Trump’s Unpopularity

The European Union has been battling a crisis of legitimacy after a difficult year in 2016. It has come under fire for how it has been handling an onslaught of criticism, including issues surrounding migration, terrorism, stagnant economic recovery, and Brexit.

In wake of Trump’s visit to NATO and the EU, Angela Merkel added another hurdle for the EU to overcome by making her faith in the transatlantic relationship clear: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Now, merely a few days after Merkel’s statements, the opportunity for European leaders to do just that has arrived. This palpable shift in global dynamic has provided an opportunity for European leaders to leverage the event as political capital to strengthen support and unity at home.

By using Trump as a foil, European politicians can garner more support for mainstream politicians. Indeed, this has already proven to be a successful strategy. After the shock of populism-fueled wins for Brexit in Britain and Trump in the United States, fear over Trump-like victories for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France may have contributed to their ultimate defeat in the voting booths.

Trump’s unpopularity can help European leadership globally as well. In the political vacuum that Trump’s recusal of global influence has left, Germany and France have the potential to usurp the U.S.’ traditional influence on the international stage. Steering the direction of an American-less Paris agreement will be their first test.

Honey, Let the Adults Talk

In providing visible leadership in the widely supported Paris agreement, European leaders will not only prove that they are able to represent the interests of their domestic voters , but that they are also  capable of  directing the Paris agreement in a more ambitious direction than they would be able to if the U.S. still had their seat at the table.

It is important for the United States to be included when determining a global strategy to combat climate change. Not only is it the world’s second biggest polluter (after China), it also wields enormous economic and cultural influence. However, with the United States opting out, world leaders can set the benchmark higher without kowtowing to Americans in order to coax them on board.

Markets Speak Louder Than Words

“The Trump administration is giving the EU a unique opportunity to wield soft power (read more about soft power in Borja Negrete’s column) by establishing international standards and by doing so, appealing to U.S. businesses to comply with the Paris agreement.

Standards affect approximately 80% of world trade, and those who participate in their creation dictate how rules are made, and under what condition countries participate in international trade. International norms are made by organizations such as the World Trade Organization and International Organization for Standardization, in which the European Union has 28 votes and the United States only one. Therefore, the EU has more power to dictate the trade trends from the international level.

Standards normalization takes time, and the EU has control of a more immediate tool—their own market. As a rule, anyone who wants to trade with the EU must comply with regulation or else, they cannot access the EU market. Domestic regulatory autonomy of states is still the primary principle in the international system and in international economic law. However, with market globalization and the free flow of goods, services, labor and capital across national borders, we have entered an era of rules globalization, where regional and global diffusion of normative frameworks dictate market norms and accessibility. Martin Shultz reiterated this sentiment, declaring: “Whoever wants to have access to our market, and the European market is the biggest market in the world, needs to respect the European standards.”

In the medium term, U.S. companies will be under pressure to conform to international standards and gain access to important markets like the EU. As a result, U.S. cities, states and private industry voices that still support the agreement may voluntarily take steps to come into line and comply with international norms.

Donald Trump poses for a photo with European Union leaders, President Jean-Claude Juncker (left) and European Council President Donald Tusk (right), Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Brussels.


The US: Public vs. President

A united regulatory front may inhibit the ability for U.S. companies to trade abroad without conforming to Paris agreement standards de facto. That said, it will have no impact on U.S. companies that operate domestically and some companies may be compelled to accept the costs of incompatible international standards and still benefit from gains of comparative advantage in doing what other countries have prohibited their industries from doing.

A whopping 71% of Americans support U.S. participation in the Paris agreement, and that is being made evident by the slew of Americans rallying behind the agreement at the state and local level. Significantly, a dozen states and hundreds of municipalities have already pledged their commitment to upholding the United States’ end of the bargain. And, incredibly, 30 prominent business leaders including the CEO of Exxon implored Trump to stay in the agreement, undermining Trump’s claim that withdrawing would be beneficial for businesses.

These statistics show not only the value in nurturing the transatlantic relationship through a difficult presidency, but these people can serve as a resource to Paris agreement’s leaders by putting pressure domestically on firms to comply with agreed measures.  The U.S. can financially support the initiative, as demonstrated by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently pledged $15 million to help the U.N. cover the U.S.’ portion of operational funding for the agreement.

Encouraging Steps

Stable leadership from Europe is not just in the best interest of Europeans, but also Americans. Trump has butchered American foreign policy, and guidance from Europe can help salvage the situation once his term is up. France, Germany and Italy addressed this issue with a united front by releasing a joint statement defending the Paris accords (from which the U.K. was notably absent).

Macron has risen above the pack in that regard, and he has already proven his political prowess by addressing the world in English after Trump’s announcement about U.S. withdrawal from the agreement. His decision to speak in English indicates that he intends to use his role to address both Americans and the global community. Macron was right to welcome the arrival of U.S climate change researchers in France, in a move that reproaches Trump’s policies while still keeping the door open to a beneficial relationship with American people down the line.

It is easy for feelings of animosity towards Trump to translate to derision of the United States as a whole.  However, it is crucial for European countries to focus on the bigger picture and weather the storm through an erratic Trump presidency without damaging the long-term health of US-European relations. To do otherwise would be to permit one politician to alter the course of an otherwise fruitful and mutually beneficial cooperation.

Looking Forward

The U.S. departure from the Paris agreement is not promising for US-EU relations, but the transatlantic relationship is merely under strain, not doomed. The shared history and values of the U.S. and E.U. will ultimately prevail.

By the leaving the Paris agreement, Trump has initiated a number of unexpected externalities as a result. The move inadvertently helped unify Europeans and gave the Paris agreement the freedom to move forward without taking stock of restrictive American preferences. Nonetheless, market influences may insight de facto participation in the agreement. Indeed, the decision sparked international cooperation with non-federal U.S. actors to mitigate the impact of the official withdrawal. While these valient efforts are no match for federal wide participation, it certainly will impact both the domestic and international dynamic of the U.S.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement isn’t the fatal blow to its climate preservation objectives nor is it the end of the transatlantic relationship. There is never a way to predict the future, and any litany of emergencies could rock the boat. Despite the ambiguity surrounding what may come, there is still one comfort we can predict: the legal process to fully withdraw from the Paris agreement won’t finish until November 4th, 2020—one day after the next U.S. presidential election.

Rebecca E. Gomez

Rebecca is based in Washington, D.C. She is currently contracted by the U.S. Department of State and holds a Master’s degree in International Political Economy from the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies in Belgium.

Twitter: @RebeccaEGomez   LinkedIn


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