Will Donald Trump make or break Europe?

Angela Merkel Donald Trump 2017-03-17 (cropped)

This is an article I wrote back in March, which was shortlisted for the Nico Colchester Journalism fellowship. A few months on, I think the thrust of the analysis remains relevant, and I feel more sure of my argument.

Henry Kissinger once famously asked “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe,” supposedly illustrating the American desire for a single European voice on the world stage. Except, he didn’t. According to an anecdote published in the Financial Times, the master of Realpolitik did not like dealing with the President of the Council of European Union as the spokesman for the entire organisation, and rather seemed to want to divide and rule in Europe.

Whatever the USA’s attitude towards European integration has been in the past, the election of Donald Trump has raised fears its policies will now divide and weaken the continent. Trump is sceptical about the European Union and NATO, and appears to dislike multilateralism in itself. He has promised the United Kingdom a trade deal to soften the blow of Brexit, while it is feared he may bypass the EU in negotiating with Russia over Ukraine.

Trump’s dislike of trade deficits also raises tensions with European exporters. Germany, whose trade surplus with the USA last year was $65 billion, has received some of the administration’s harshest criticism. Peter Navarro, head of Trump’s new National Trade Council, has accused it of taking advantage of a “grossly undervalued” euro. Trump also declared that Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was a “catastrophic mistake”, and after meeting her in person tweeted: “The United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!”

Fears about Trump come on top of many other external challenges for Europe. In its North-East corner, Baltic countries are worried about Russian interference and possible invasion. On the South-East border, a newly authoritarian Turkey is the sole barrier between it and the Syrian civil war (and those displaced by the conflict).

At the same time, there are internal divides. Negotiating the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will require much political capital, and represents the loss of the Union’s second largest economy. Rising authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland creates friction with Western Europe, while scars remain over the austerity measures introduced in Southern European countries at the behest of the so-called troika. Furthermore, mainstream parties are under threat from populists who dislike the level of integration between states.

For sociologists, what defines group identity is not the similarity between those in the group, but their difference from those outside it. From the fall of the Berlin Wall until quite recently, the world seemed to be heading towards “the end of history”, to quote Francis Fukuyama, with all countries becoming free-market liberal democracies. Defining Europe was difficult when the rest of world was thought to be imitating its political and economic model.

It is true that before Trump, China had already proved it could combine free trade with authoritarian government, strongmen had taken power in large emerging nations like Russia, the Philippines and India, and most of the Arab Spring dreams had turned into nightmares. However, an illiberal, protectionist administration in the country described as the leader of the free world has provided a greater shock than all of these.

The current backlash against liberal democracy makes determining what distinguishes Europe from the rest of the world much easier. In the words of the candidate for German chancellor Martin Schulz: “The dream of Europe is a region of freedom and peace, of security, law, democracy, tolerance and mutual respect. If you look into the faces of the refugees you will see this dream.”

More aware of its singularity, and panicked by events outside it, Europe is already being forced to strengthen. Germany has announced that it will boost military spending from 1.2 percent of GDP to the NATO target of 2 percent, while Sweden plans to reintroduce conscription from 2018.

Since Trump’s election, European voters also seem to be putting their faith in politicians who want the continent to be a beacon of liberty. A YouGov survey found over half of respondents in seven European countries thought Trump would make the world a more dangerous place. It would not be surprising, therefore, if he hinders politicians seen as his European equivalents.

In Austria’s presidential re-run in December, left-wing Alexander Van der Bellen defeated the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer. In the Dutch elections in March, the virulently anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders finished a poor second.

The two most important European elections this year will be for the presidency of France and the chancellorship of Germany, and at present the momentum in both campaigns has been stolen by pro-EU, liberal candidates, in the form of Emmanuel Macron and Schulz respectively. A Macron win – which looks more likely than not – would reinvigorate the Franco-German alliance, because he is prepared to introduce the sort of economic reforms Berlin has always wanted.

The issues of migration, terrorism and Russia have been exploited by both Trump and European nationalists. Yet logic dictates they require a common European response, whether within or outside of the EU and NATO. Rediscovering its purpose in an uncertain world and forced to cooperate by necessity, Europe has found in the form of Donald Trump the catalyst to unite and strengthen.


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