BRUSSELS – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence moved Monday to assuage European Union fears about the strength of Washington’s support for the union and its commitment to European security through the NATO military alliance.
During meetings in Brussels, Pence said he was acting on behalf of President Donald Trump “to express the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union.”
“Whatever our differences, our two continents share the same heritage, the same values and above all the same purpose: to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he told reporters after talks with EU Council President Donald Tusk.
Trump’s benevolence toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and campaign rhetoric that included branding NATO obsolete and vowing to undo a series of multinational trade deals has sparked anxiety in Europe. Trump was also supportive of Britain’s vote last year to leave the 28-nation EU, a withdrawal known as Brexit. And he has suggested that the EU itself could soon fall apart.
Tusk, who chairs meetings of EU leaders, said he had been reassured after “open and frank talks” with Pence, but made clear that the bloc would watch closely to ensure the U.S. acts on its words of support.
“I heard words which are promising for the future, words which explain a lot about the new approach in Washington,” Tusk said.
He underlined that “too many new and sometimes surprising opinions have been voiced over this time about our relations — and our common security — for us to pretend that everything is as it used to be.
“We are counting, as always in the past, on the United States’ wholehearted and unequivocal — let me repeat, unequivocal — support for the idea of a united Europe,” Tusk said. “The world would be a decidedly worse place if Europe were not united.”
He asserted: “The idea of NATO is not obsolete, just like the values which lie at its foundation are not obsolete.”
Tusk added, “Both Europeans and Americans must simply practice what they preach.”
After talks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg across town, Pence reiterated the administration’s strong support for the alliance, but warned that Trump wants to see “real progress” by the end of the year on boosting defense spending.
NATO leaders agreed in 2014 that alliance members needed to start spending at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product by 2024. Only five nations currently do so: the United States, Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece.
“The truth is many others, including some of our largest allies, still lack a clear and credible path to meet this minimum goal,” Pence said.
Asked what the administration would do if allies failed to meet the defense spending target, Pence said, “I don’t know what the answer is to ‘or else,’ but I know that the patience of the American people will not endure forever.”
Pence’s meetings in Brussels were aimed at assuring European leaders that his words reflected the views of Trump and would not easily be swept away at the whim of the U.S. president or undermined by statements issued on Twitter.
Pence, as he did in an address Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, also said Trump would demand that Russia honor its commitments to end the fighting in Ukraine.
“In the interest of peace and in the interest of innocent human lives, we hope and pray that this cease-fire takes hold,” he said.
The vice president also noted the “heartbreaking” suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and subway system in March 2016, and said the U.S. would continue to collaborate with EU partners to address safety and combat terrorism.
“The United States’ commitment to the European Union is steadfast and enduring,” he said.
Pence also said Monday he was disappointed that Michael Flynn gave him “inaccurate” information about his contacts with Russia before he resigned as national security adviser.
But Pence defended President Trump’s handling of the resignation as proper and timely and said he had “great confidence” in the administration’s security plans.
“I would tell you that I was disappointed that … the facts that had been conveyed to me by Gen. Flynn were inaccurate,” Pence told a press conference in Brussels.
On Feb. 13, the White House said Trump had accepted Flynn’s resignation amid allegations the retired three-star general discussed U.S. sanctions strategy with Russia’s ambassador to Washington before Trump’s inauguration.
Pence had publicly defended Flynn, saying he did not discuss sanctions, putting his own credibility at risk.
In his resignation letter, Flynn — who once headed U.S. military intelligence — admitted to “inadvertently” misleading Pence about the substance of the call.
“I fully support the president’s decision to ask for his resignation,” Pence said when asked if the administration kept him out of the loop on Flynn’s contacts.
“It was the proper decision, it was handled properly and in a timely way. I have great confidence in the national security team of this administration going forward,” Pence said.
Flynn’s unprecedented early departure poured fuel on demands for a full independent investigation into alleged collusion between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin.
U.S. media reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the contents of his talks with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and that it could make him vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
The Kremlin has previously denied that Flynn and Kislyak discussed the lifting of US sanctions.
Flynn — who has previously met Russian President Vladimir Putin — was a vocal supporter of a softer policy on Russia after ties plunged over Moscow’s meddling in Ukraine and allegations of interference in the U.S. election.
The Kremlin is hoping that Trump will follow through on his pledge to improve relations with Russia and may eventually wind back damaging sanctions that have battered its economy.
EU and NATO leaders who have been meeting Pence on his European trip have expressed concern the Trump administration is less committed to transatlantic ties and is taking a softer line on Russia.