“I would have only gone to Ukraine for tourism”: Former US ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner

Gardner talks Boris Johnson, the EU’s new leadership, and his successor, Gordon Sondland, who is a key player in the impeachment investigation against Trump.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“It’s been terrible seeing Trump describe the EU as an ‘enemy’ when these guys are our natural allies.” Anthony Gardner, the former US ambassador to the European Union says, in a Battersea delicatessen where the croissants look good enough to hang in the Louvre.

Despite his despair at the current state of relations, in his forthcoming book Stars with Stripes, Gardner will attempt to re-make the case for US-EU relations as the key axis for the global liberal order. Although the ultra-hawkish John Bolton, former White House national security adviser, was forced out in September, Gardner still detects his influence on the administration.

A tireless advocate of international cooperation, he’s “pleased to see the EU position itself as a geopolitical actor”, noting its strengths as a regulator, procurer and trading power. With the EU under new leadership, he admits he doesn’t know the Commission’s new president, Ursula von der Leyen, but praises Margrethe Vestager – a zealous competition commissioner who clamped down Apple, Facebook and Google – and her bolstered executive vice-presidency.

“They’ve got a lot of work to do and we’ll just have to see how things turn out”, he says, adding that “I just hope my generation hasn’t ruined it for yours.”

After a career working in a multilateral, rules-based system, it’s inevitable that he deplores Brexit, maintaining that it “will sap the EU’s power to address the big issues, like climate change, trade and human rights”.

Gardner studied in the UK, where he now lives, and has known Boris Johnson since they were at Oxford together in the mid-1980s.

He is aghast at Johnson’s sordid relationships with both Trump and the truth, and he tells me that this country seems to be changing in front of his eyes. He is unenthusiastic about this general election:  “I don’t think much of Labour’s mass nationalisation plans, I lean Liberal Democrat but I don’t love Jo Swinson either.”

Gardner sandwiched a career in law and private equity between working in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. He says he “must just have been living in a bubble” which burst at the news that Donald Trump would be elected president.

Three years on, an impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump is accelerating, and Gordon Sondland, a hotel magnate who succeeded Gardner after donating $1m to Trump’s inaugural committee, is key to the impeachment investigation against the president.

Trump allegedly withheld a White House meeting and $400m worth of military assistance from Ukraine’s President Zelensky unless he publically announced a political investigation into the family of Joe Biden – Trump’s rival and likely presidential opponent in 2020.

Last month, Sondland damaged the president by reversing his earlier testimony to testify that he had “followed the president’s orders”, that “there was a quid pro quo” and that “everyone was in the loop”. As befits a former diplomat, Gardner’s criticism for his successor is only ever implied, but there is detectable relish when he chooses to praise Sondland’s legal team.

When I ask why an ambassador to the EU would even be involved in Ukraine, he answers indirectly. “I would have only gone to Ukraine for tourism”, and doing so uninvited would have been both “a breach of diplomatic courtesy” to his fellow ambassadors and a waste of taxpayer money.

Unusually, only around two-thirds of the United States’s ambassadors typically have foreign policy backgrounds, with the remainder made up of campaign donors. In the Trump administration, it’s almost 50-50. Gardner reflects the despair in foreign policy circles, “it’s really unfair how much the system is stacked towards the super-wealthy” adding that “rebuilding the State Department is going to be a massive job”.

This week, House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment, following the publication of two reports by House intelligence and judiciary committees respectively outlining the evidence against the president and the constitutional argument for his impeachment. While Gardner is encouraged by the millions of viewers who have tuned in to watch the hearings, he’s sceptical that Trump will be removed from office, but wonders what acquitting the president might mean for vulnerable Republican senators in 2020.

Seared into the mind of every Democrat is that fewer than 80,000 votes – spread across Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – cost Hillary Clinton the presidency in 2016. In those states, the Republicans won for the first time since the 1980s.

Last month, Gardner became one of 133 foreign policy professionals to declare their support for Joe Biden. “He’s ready to go from day one, he’s got the team and he’s got the experience,” Gardner tells me, adding that Biden’s unique warmth can win back blue-collar Obama-Trump voters who decided the election last time.

In a crowded Democratic primary field, he’s concerned about how “many candidates are still running, we’re splitting the fundraising pool in twenty different directions – we need unity!”

Gardner is obviously still sifting through the rubble of 2016, uncomfortable seeing politics become unmoored from economic rationality. In limbo, he feels that the UK and the US each have precisely one election to repair their international standing and return to reality – in the meantime, there’s nothing to do but wait.