Sondland’s style created tension in EU before impeachment

Raf Casert
Associated Press

Brussels – Gordon Sondland didn’t come for coffee klatsch at European Union headquarters on Tuesday. Instead, Donald Trump’s diplomatic pit bull in Brussels was preparing to appear at the presidential impeachment inquiry in Washington.

He may not have been missed on the Continent. Before Sondland stirred any controversy with his dealings on behalf of Trump in Ukraine, his caustic style had already created problems in Brussels, where he is the U.S. ambassador to the 28-nation EU.

Sondland originally planned to meet Tuesday with EU Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis to discuss better cooperation between the two trading juggernauts. That meeting was postponed indefinitely because Sondland was to testify Wednesday before Congress about his involvement in Ukraine. But in truth, the relationship has been galloping backward ever since Trump entered office, and diplomats say Sondland’s style has not helped.

In this July 10, 2018, file photo, President Donald Trump is joined by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union as he arrives at Melsbroek Air Base, in Brussels, Belgium.

EU officials who talked with The Associated Press about working with Sondland spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that their comments could damage relations with the U.S.

Sondland knows he is not a typical ambassador and has called himself “a disruptive diplomat.”

“If it appears like I am trying to disrupt the stagnant and circuitous way in which the U.S. and the EU have dealt with issues of mutual concern, such as impacting our national security and economic prosperity, you’re right,” he has said.

His involvement in Ukraine is an example of Sondland’s less-than-diplomatic approach. He visited Ukraine twice, even though it is not part of the EU and not part of his formal responsibilities. He also gave an interview with Ukrainian television boasting of his closeness to Trump and laying out his views of Ukraine, almost like instructions: “They’re Western and they’re going to stay Western.”

Sondland is known for the grand gesture. At a party for diplomats and journalists last month at the ornate Cercle Gaulois club between the Belgian parliament and royal palace, he highlighted his close links with Trump and Trump’s confidants. He spoke of a three-hour “family dinner” in Manhattan with two incoming EU leaders and Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.

“We all sat in the kitchen together, rolled up our sleeves and had a great discussion.” He called it “just five friends enjoying a wonderful evening.”

For all the sweet talk with EU officials, the U.S. administration and Sondland are happy to rip deep into the EU when necessary.

Sondland, a hotel magnate from Portland, Oregon, had little experience when he came to Brussels, and was not an original Trump supporter. He initially backed Jeb Bush during the Republican primaries in 2016, but later donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Trump left the EU post vacant for nearly a year and a half. Trans-Atlantic relations got so rocky that EU Council President Donald Tusk said of Trump in May 2018, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

“Then Sondland came, and at the beginning there indeed was some relief,” said an official from a major member state.

Pretty soon though, Trump’s confrontational attitude toward the EU, NATO and several major European nations found a perfect extension in Sondland. He became part of a group of ambassadors, including Berlin envoy Richard Grenell, who aggressively pushed Trump’s agenda, whatever the diplomatic practice.

The EU and US disagreed over a host of issues, including plane subsidies, the reluctance of European nations to jack up defense spending and economic relations with China. The administration’s combative style contrasted sharply with trans-Atlantic relations of the past, which were driven by a common agenda shaped by post-world war geopolitics and globalization.

In Washington and Brussels, Sondland was also criticized for not always grasping the complicated subject matter at hand.

On some issues like trade, where many different strands of policy interact and several different officials call the shots, Sondland struggled to understand policy, the official said.

Whatever happens to Sondland at the impeachment hearings, the EU should not expect it will make much of a difference back in Brussels.

“Europeans should not expect the trans-Atlantic relationship, and in particular the US-EU relationship, to significantly improve under the Trump administration, even if there is a new ambassador,” said Erik Brattberg, a director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.