By Axel Krause
Paris, November 14, 2016
It was no real surprise. Far-right, populist leaders in France, Italy, Britain, and Hungary, among others, notably Russia’s Vladimir Putin almost immediately cheered Trump’s surprise victory as encouragement, a godsend vindication of their controversial deeply conservative, populist causes.
« Great news. Democracy is alive, » declared Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Florian Phillipot, the close adviser to an equally-delighted far-right Marine Le Pen of France, added that the world of established powers in the EU « is collapsing. » Germany’s Frauke Petry, head of the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany noted Trump’s victory represented a « historical opportunity. » Echoed Geert Wilders of the Netherland’s right-wing, populist Freedom Party: « We will return our country to the Dutch. »
But Wilders, like Le Pen and Austria’s Freedom Party’ leader Norbert Hofer are among like-minded leaders facing elections in the months ahead; and despite their brightening prospects amid enormous publicity and media attention, it is established, mainstream European leaders and what they say that matter; for the time being. Some have already conveyed their concerns and priorities for cooperation in phone conversations with the president-elect, and in public statments.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, portrayed by today’s New York Times in its international edition as « the liberal West’s last defender, » offered Trump – who in the presidential campaign bluntly criticized her for deplorable weakness on immigration – set down her condition: « Germany and America are connected by common values, » she said, noting « democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity irrespective of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political conviction» Thus, she concluded, « on the basis of these values, I offer the future president of America, Donald Trump, a close working relationship. »
Her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, clearly worried, noting that Trump had spoken critically not just about Europe, but particularly about Germany, warned that « I think we have to prepare for the fact that American foreign policy will be less predictable…America will be more inclined to make unilateral decisions in the future. »
More specifically and on a more concrete note, her defense minister Ursula von der Leyen told Germanys radio-TV network ARD on Wednesday that « Europe had to prepare for the fact that it must provide for itself » apparently referring to Trump’s campaign demands that NATO members must pay more for their defense, or somehow be sidelined.
Indeed, EU foreign and defense ministers meeting in Brussels today will discuss and perhaps react to a strategy being proposed by Federica Mogherini of Italy, the EU’s top diplomat in Brussels, to develop what Politico Europe dubbed a « Schengen of defense » (referring to the liberalized travel zone among EU members) that would create a more integrated defense industry and a legal framework for cooperation among those EU members who decide to move forward, which she described as « very ambitious and pragmatic. »
A French diplomat told Politico that a couple of years ago, such a plan would not have a chance of being approved, but « in the context of Trump’s election, it will certainly be reinforced. »
And while it is unclear how a stronger EU defense and military strategy might relete to NATO, and taking into account that as Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Renders told reporters yesterday « it has long been known that Europe will have to step up its action on security and defense, » NATO’s top official is urging that his oganization should remain the top-priority focus.
In an op-ed piece for Britain’s Observer of yesterday, NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg urged, as the paper headlined, that « now is not the time for the US to abandon NATO, or for its European allies to go it alone. » Thus, he concluded « going it along is not an option, either for Europe or for the United States. »
If Europe is finally commited to spending more on defense, reducing US involvement and spending, the Trump administration will no doubt respond by sayng – « great guys, go ahead, » said Francois Heisbourg a top French expert on internatinal relations, and defense policy.
Meantime and grimly, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, speaking with students there on Friday, was quoted as predicting that « we’ll waste time for two years while Mr. Trump tours a world that he is completely unaware of…in general the Americans take no interest in Europe…Mr. Trump said Belgium was a village somewhere on our continent. »
Neverthless, both he and EU Council President Donald Tusk of Poland quickly and jointly asked Trump for a meeting in Europe « at your earliest convenience, » possibly in the form of a US-EU summit, hoping now to establish contact with the transition team that was impossible during the campaign, even via EU-member embassies in Washington.
Trade and specifically the controversial proposed TTIP, the US-EU partnership on trade and investment, is another key subject up for discussion with the Trump adminisration, actively supported by Britain’s conservative government, Merkel and the European Commission, amid strong protests and oppositon to key provisons in several key member states, notably France.
The Commission’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malstrom of Sweden, noted that Trump’s attacks on trade treaties and diplomats, were directed mainly at the North American trade treaty NAFTA; and the similar TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the US and eleven other Pacific countries amid expectatons that it will, in any case, not be ratified by the US Senate. « TTIP simply is not on the (Trump) radar. » There is however,she said, « a very good case to have TTIP to facilitate trade between the two biggest eonomic powers, »
A fuzzy, brief indication, but no certainty, about how the incoming administration will respond, was provided by the president-elect’s senior trade adviser, Dan DiMicco, the former head head of steelmaker Nucor, cited by the Economist magazine in its November 12 issue. Regarding the treaties just mentioned, he said prior to the election, « whether they go forward depends on whether we cen return to balanced trade, and whether they add o GDP growth…let’s talk, but otherwise we put tariffs on. »
The one EU leader who seems to have an inside, now-friendly track to Trump and reportedly the first or one of the first, foreign leaders with whom he spoke after the election is – Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May.
Like Merkel and France’s President Francois Hollande, she congratulated the president-elect, saying their two nations have « an enduring and special relationship based on the values of freedom, democracy and enterprise…we are, and will remain, strong and close partners on trade, security and defense. » Britain, he was quoted by her spokesperson as saying, is « a very,very special place for me and for our country. » The phone call apparently ended with Trump inviting May to visit him « as soon as possible. »
Commenting on the friendly exchange, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale, noted that Trump has fully supported Brexit, Britain’s plan to withdraw from the EU; and « makes positive noises about Britain securing a (presumably bilateral) trade deal with the US. »
Regarding President Obama’s warning that Britain’s EU withdawal might well mean slipping to the end of the complex US multilateral trade queue, Trump has said, according to Landale, « I’m not going to say (with regard to a bilateral arrangement) front of the queue, but it would’t make any difference to me whether they were in the EU or not. You (Ms May) would certainly not be back of the queue, that I can tell you. »
A common theme among most European leaders, experts, journalists and diplomats is that Trump’s victory is as much Europe’s badly-needed wakeup call and the beginning o debate on the EU’s future, as challenging as the fall of the Berlin Wall. But we probably won’t know much more about the issues we have raised until we see who does what in the incoming administration. And what they plan to do.
Axel Krause is the Paris-based contributing editor of TransAtlantic Magazine, who has covered Europe for decades as correspondent, bureau chief and editor for Business Week and the International Herald Tribune. He is author of Inside the New Europe.