SOFIA - The European Union’s top official launched a stinging attack Wednesday on President Donald Trump, slamming his “capricious assertiveness” and saying the US leader acted more like an enemy than a friend.

EU president Donald Tusk urged leaders meeting in Bulgaria to form a “united European front” against Trump’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and his move to impose trade tariffs on Europe. Tusk even compared the US administration to Europe’s traditional foes Moscow and Beijing as he launched his broadside hours before a dinner of the 28 leaders in Sofia where they will discuss the issue. Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, someone could even think with friends like that who needs enemies,” Tusk told reporters.

“But frankly speaking, Europe should be grateful to President Trump, because thanks to him we have got rid of all illusions. He has made us realise that if you need a helping hand you will find one at the end of your arm.” The transatlantic rift has hijacked the agenda of a summit on Thursday at which the EU leaders will meet their Balkan counterparts in a bid to foster closer ties and keep Russia out of their backyard.

European ministers met with a top Iranian official in Brussels on Tuesday in a bid to save the Iranian nuclear accord after Trump decided to pull out. Meanwhile the EU is still trying to win exemptions from tariffs on steel and aluminium exports. Tusk called for more unity in the divided EU - which is set to lose Britain as a member next year - to face the growing challenges.

‘Capricious assertiveness’

“Besides the traditional political challenges such as the rise of China or the aggressive stance of Russia, we are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration,” Tusk said.

“I have no doubt that in the new global game, Europe will either be one of the major players, or a pawn. This is the only real alternative.”

The 28 leaders will also discuss the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in Gaza after Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, in another move that the Europeans had strongly opposed.

Tusk said he wanted the European leaders to “reconfirm” that they will stay in the Iran deal, as long as Tehran respects it - although Europe must now find a way to make up for the US sanctions on Iran that Trump will reactivate.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will “present their assessment of the situation” to their colleagues, he said.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU foreign policy chief will outline to the leaders what measures the bloc could take to shield its now substantial economic interests in Iran, Tusk added. Merkel however said that Europe had no choice but to stick with the ties that have bound it to Washington since World War II.

“Despite all the difficulties we have these days, the transatlantic relations are and will remain of outstanding importance,” Merkel told the German parliament. Over the dinner of Bulgarian salad, meatballs, buffalo steak and walnut biscuits with berries, May meanwhile was to tell her fellow leaders that Britain was “committed to ensuring the deal is upheld” so long as Iran honours its commitments, her spokeswoman said.

‘Stick to our guns’

On Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, a move the EU has warned could spark a trade war, Tusk urged the leaders to keep a unified front.

“I will propose we stick to our guns,” Tusk said.

“It is absurd to even think that the EU could be a threat to the US. We need to bring back reality in this discussion, which is not the case today,”

Behind their message of unity and firmness, some member states seem open to tolerating limited quotas from the United States on metals imports while others want a harder line, diplomats said. The violence in Gaza will also be on the agenda as it was “linked to the bigger question of the consequences of the decisions of Donald Trump,” an EU official said.

The EU has called for “utmost restraint” after Israeli forces killed 60 Palestinians during clashes and protests along the Gaza border against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the conflict’s bloodiest day in years.

But there are divisions over the embassy move within the EU itself, with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania having recently blocked an EU statement slamming the US decision.

Wednesday’s dinner will be followed by a summit on Thursday where EU leaders will meet their counterparts from the Balkan nations of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia.

Merkel, Putin revive dialogue

after Trump scraps Iran deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday to discuss the explosive global issues of Iran, Syria and Ukraine amid a deepening US-European crisis of confidence.

This year’s first face-to-face talks between the veteran leaders, who speak each others’ languages, comes as European powers are scrambling to preserve the Iran deal which US President Donald Trump abandoned last week.

For Merkel, the main objective in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi will be to seek pragmatic dialogue with Putin, despite their yawning political differences, in the quest to preserve the landmark 2015 agreement.

Time is running out to save the accord under which Iran pledged not to build a nuclear bomb in return for relief from punishing sanctions.

While Trump has threatened to punish allies which continue to do business with the Islamic republic, Iran has demanded European guarantees to respect the pact and warned it could revive its atomic programme, sparking fears of more turmoil in the conflict-torn region. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, on a whirlwind global diplomatic tour, Tuesday welcomed as “a good start” talks with his French, British and German counterparts in Brussels but insisted on continued economic benefits for Iran.

Putin - a key player as an ally of Iran, with which it militarily backs President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s bloody conflict - is also due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron in late May.

After years of a deepening East-West rift sometimes labelled a new Cold War, Merkel recently repeated her warning that Europe can no longer rely on its traditional bedrock NATO ally the United States to “protect” it. German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle commented that “a rapprochement between Germany and Russia could be an unexpected consequence of Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran”.

Accusations, denials

Merkel’s challenge will be how to move forward without yielding to Moscow on a range of divisive issues - from Russia’s role in Syria to Iran’s ballistic missile programme to sanctions imposed against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.

Western powers have also accused Moscow of a poison attack on Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain and of destabilising cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns, claims which Russia denies.

Also looming over the talks is the festering conflict between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels which has seen barely a day without armed clashes since the 2015 Minsk peace accords brokered by Berlin and Paris. This week starkly recalled Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea when Putin, who was re-elected for a fourth Kremlin term in March, personally drove a truck over a new 19 kilometre (12 mile) bridge linking the peninsula with the Russian mainland.

Moscow has said Putin will urge a four-way meeting with Merkel, Macron and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to revive talks on a possible UN peacekeeping mission along the eastern Ukraine battlefront.

“We’ll see what arrangements will be found, it’s hard to predict,” said Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin, tempering expectations.

Energy friendship

Despite all the problems, Germany and Russia see eye to eye on one issue that troubles other EU nations and has sparked angry protests from Trump - the construction of a new Baltic Sea pipeline to export Russian gas to the biggest EU economy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has welcomed the “continued support of Germany for the construction of Nord Stream 2”, which is due to come into service in 2019.

Several EU countries, most vocally Poland, have protested the project for aiding a big neighbour they see as a strategic threat.

Berlin has urged Moscow to give assurances that it will preserve Ukrainian interests and not deprive it of lucrative gas transit fees.

A final irritant has emerged as Russia readies to host the World Cup, where the German national side will seek to defend their world title.

Berlin this week protested Moscow’s denial of a visa to a German journalist who was a driving force in uncovering the Russian state-sponsored doping scandal.

Moscow relented, but also warned that its prosecutors would seek the reporter for questioning if he enters Russian soil.

Germany has so far not confirmed whether it will send government representatives to the international football tournament.