Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's remarks cause controversy, leaving transatlantic relations under 'severe strain,' experts warn

Pompeo has been highly critical of the European Union and the U.K.

Last week he visited London and begins talks with European leaders in Brussels, Belgium, before visiting Russia on May 14. But as the next phase of talks with European leaders begins, the perceived unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy is now proving difficult to swallow for some of America's closest European and British allies, according to diplomatic experts.

Pompeo has been highly critical of the European Union and the U.K. on his European tour.

In a speech described by The Financial Times as a “no-holds-barred attack,” Pompeo said the U.K.’s plans to allow Chinese technology company Huawei to expand aspects of its 5G network could amount to “open doors for Beijing’s spymasters.” The U.S. claims Huawei has been doing business with Iran and could potentially leak data to the Chinese government.

On Iran, Pompeo said that the U.K. government shares "our assessment of the threat, but they have taken a different approach when it comes to constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

Tellingly, the headline in the Daily Telegraph newspaper read: “Secretary of State warns UK over Iran amid strain on special relationship.”

And on Venezuela, Pompeo again made headlines by saying those that disagree with U.S. policy in Venezuela were "disgusting."

The socialist leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who could well become the next U.K. prime minister, has gone on record a number of times to oppose U.S. intervention in Venezuela and said the country’s future is “a matter for Venezuelans.”

‘Visits are dreaded rather than welcomed’

The strong rhetoric from the Trump administration has come to be expected in European capitals. On issues such as NATO spending and China, European security interests are broadly aligned with the U.S. position but the “public dressing downs” are having an impact, according to Richard Whitman, professor of politics and international relations at University of Kent.

“It isn’t necessarily that the administration is delivering a different message to that from other recent administrations on some issues (such as defense expenditure) but the tone and the public dressing downs are pretty brutal,” he told ABC News. “It does mean that the visits of major administration officials now have the feel of something to be dreaded rather than welcomed.”

Some of these criticisms are predictable and justified, according to Benjamin Rhode, research fellow for transatlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“I think the Trump administration is justified to complain about the failures of most of its European partners to pull their weight when it comes to military spending in NATO,” he told ABC News. “This has been a U.S. complaint for many decades.”

Similarly, on the issue of China and the diplomatic fallout of the U.S. approach to Huawei, European interests are largely aligned with Trump’s, said Whitman.

“Pompeo’s trip had the feel of a visit that was designed to rub Europeans up the wrong way and do more to expose transatlantic divisions than stressing areas of agreement,” he added.

‘Severe strain’

The transatlantic relationship, historically one of the most important global alliances, is now under “severe strain,” according to Rhode.

The Iran nuclear deal is the main sticking point.

“This transcends traditional tensions such as squabbles over military burden-sharing,” Rhode said. “President Trump has described the EU as a ‘foe,’ at least concerning trade. The decision to withdraw from the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] has put Washington on a potential collision course with Britain, France and Germany.”

“Europeans invested significantly in a process to manage Iran [with the U.S.] which they see as being ripped up,” he continued. “There are pretty diametrically opposed views between the EU and U.S. on how to handle Iran.”

This can be seen in recent statements from European leaders over the past week. U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters in Brussels before talks with Pompeo on Monday that “we are very worried about a conflict, about the risk of a conflict ... of an escalation that is unintended,” according to Reuters.

The future of the special relationship?

In the short term, Pompeo’s trip is unlikely to sour the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the United States, according to Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute.

“Leaders are biting their lips at the latest humiliation from Washington,” he said. But there is another complicating factor in the “special relationship” between the U.K. and United States – the future of Prime Minister Theresa May.

There is a strong chance Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong socialist, could be the next prime minister. He could potentially “have the power to bring about the dismantlement of the special relationship with America against which he has fought for his whole political career," Chalmers said.

“All this would change if Jeremy Corbyn were to become premier, a scenario that is becoming ever more possible as the May government implodes,” Chalmers noted. “There is little doubt that Corbyn would take a markedly more anti-American stance than any previous post-war premier.”

Yet it is the unpredictability of the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions that is threatening the relationship from the perspective of EU leaders, according to Whitman, and this could have significant ramifications.

“They feel constantly wrong-footed by Mr. Trump’s social media and public pronouncements and they are anxious about the ability of the transatlantic relationship to endure,” he said.