U.S. President Donald Trump is interviewed by Reuters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst(reuters_tickers)
By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - When Donald Trump called the European Union "wonderful" and said he was "totally in favour of it", some Brussels officials feared the headline was a hoax, given the U.S. president's earlier apparent disdain for the bloc.
Trump's remarks in an interview with Reuters late on Thursday appeared to contrast sharply with comments he made last month when he labelled the EU a "vehicle for Germany", called Brexit a "great thing" and said more countries would follow Britain out of the bloc.
European diplomats were quick to credit Vice President Mike Pence with persuading his boss of the Union's merits after himself being convinced by top EU officials he met in Brussels at the start of the week.
Officials said it was unclear, however, if Trump's policies would match the pro-EU language which Pence used on Monday or that of White House strategist Steve Bannon, whose scepticism about the bloc had been reflected in Trump's earlier comments.
As Pence was preparing to fly to Europe to reassure allies that Trump backed the NATO defence pact and wanted cooperation, Bannon told Germany's ambassador last week that Washington would deal with individual states, but not the EU.
In the Reuters interview, Trump delivered a conciliatory message. When asked if he supported the European Union as a governing body for the continent, he said: "I do, sure ... The EU, I'm totally in favour of it. I think it's wonderful, if they're happy. If they're happy, I'm in favour of it."
"Pence 1, Bannon 0 - at the end of the first quarter," one senior EU official said. "These statements clearly, explicitly, go against what Bannon has been saying," said another.
"We are starting to see traces of pragmatism in Washington," a third senior EU foreign policy official said.
A senior diplomat spoke of the Union now seeing "some return on the investment" in laying out its concerns to Pence over the risk of reversing decades of active U.S. encouragement for Europe to pool its sovereignty and resources. But the question remained: "Will Trump be saying the same thing tomorrow?"
Asked about Trump's new remarks, a Commission spokesman said only that the EU executive read them "with interest".
On Monday, EU officials said they were reassured that Pence had understood a strong message from European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in separate meetings, that the EU as a bloc was good for the United States.
"Pence clearly understood something in the meeting," one EU official said of talks with Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who said that he spoke with unusual directness in the talks.
At a news conference, Pence repeatedly name-checked the "Union" as a partner, in contrast to earlier statements on his European visit that focused only on U.S. cooperation with "Europe".
Tusk, jailed during Soviet-backed military rule in Poland, seized on Pence bringing up his own youthful travels to divided Cold War Berlin to remind him at the news conference of commitments made by an earlier Republican president, Ronald Reagan.
"I think Pence was surprised by the strength of Tusk's questions and anxiety," an EU official said of the earlier meeting between the two men. "He said he would take the message back to Trump. It sounds like Trump listened."
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Pravin Char)