Pompeo cancels his last trip to Europe after unprecedented snub

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. [EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE]

Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cancelled his Europe trip at the last minute on Tuesday (12 January) after top EU officials and Luxembourg’s foreign minister declined to meet him, according to European diplomats and other people familiar with the matter.

Pompeo, a close ally of US President Donald Trump, had sought to visit Luxembourg before meeting EU leaders and the bloc’s top diplomat in Brussels, three people close to the planning told Reuters.

The Luxembourg leg of the trip was scrapped, one diplomatic source said after officials there showed reluctance to grant him appointments, while the Brussels leg was still on until the last minute.

The snub of such a high-ranking US representative is unprecedented in the history of transatlantic relations.

A Luxembourgish official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the visit was cancelled in protest at comments by Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn slamming Trump as a “criminal” over the attack by his supporters on the Capitol last week.

Asselborn described Trump to RTL Radio as a “political pyromaniac who must be brought before a court”.

“He has ignored his own Constitution, court decisions and of course the election results,” Asselborn had said. The Luxembougish foreign minister has a reputation for straight-talking.

In a refurbished schedule of his trip, Pompeo was set to meet with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Sophie Wilmès, the State Department said in a statement on Monday (11 January).

However, Pompeo’s final Brussels schedule was not going to involve any meetings with the EU or any public events at NATO.

An EU spokesperson confirmed to EURACTIV that there had been no intention to schedule meetings with neither European Council President Charles Michel, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen nor EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell. However, the Commission didn’t say is such meetings had been requested by the US side.

The trip would have come in the aftermath of the US Capitol storming last Wednesday by Trump supporters forcing lawmakers who were certifying Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory into hiding. The harrowing assault that left five dead.

Stoltenberg had described the scenes in Washington “shocking” and called for the outcome of the election to be respected, while many other European leaders including those of top US allies such as the UK expressed shock at the attack on the heart of American democracy.

The visit to Brussels was meant to “highlight the enduring importance of the transatlantic partnership, champion NATO’s ongoing success in safeguarding the transatlantic community and adapting to new security challenges and reaffirm the strength of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Belgium,” according to a statement to the State Department.

In a last-minute decision on Tuesday (12 January), the US State Department announced that all travel including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Brussels has been cancelled, as the agency carried out the transition work for the incoming administration of President-elect Biden.

“We are expecting shortly a plan from the incoming administration identifying the career officials who will remain in positions of responsibility on an acting basis until the Senate confirmation process is complete for incoming officials,” the State Department said in a statement, even if until recently Pompeo had been reluctant to unequivocally recognise Biden’s win.

“As a result, we are cancelling all planned travel this week, including the Secretary’s trip to Europe,” it added.

The State Department declined further comment on European officials’ rejection of meetings with Pompeo.

Pompeo’s last foreign trip was meant to conclude four tumultuous years of US foreign policy under Trump that has seen the US strain its traditional alliances in Europe.

Throughout his term, Pompeo received chilly receptions at EU headquarters, where Trump’s decisions to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and numerous other international organisations and agreements have raised concerns about an eroding multilateral order.

Pompeo had also remained loyal to Trump despite resignations from several of his cabinet colleagues and calls to force the Trump from office over the storming of the Capitol.

After Anthony Blinken has been nominated as Biden’s pick to lead the US State Department, pending Senate confirmation, European officials are also anxiously awaiting Biden’s new pick for US Ambassador to the EU.

“It’s actually incredible how much hope we hear the EU bubble pinning towards that person, he or she will have to make many calls and fast to reassure and restore what has been destroyed under an erratic Gordon Sondland,” a diplomatic source recently told EURACTIV. Sondland was the US ambassador to the EU from 2018 to 2020.

Biden’s first potential appearance in Brussels is expected to be early in 2021 (some dates in March are being tested). After he was officially invited to attend a NATO summit by Stoltenberg, the EU was quick to also offer to roll out the red carpet for him to attend one of the European Council meetings in spring.

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