Trump will be a gift to Europe's lost unity

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

EU governments will rediscover the virtues of integration


The presidency of Donald J. Trump is going to be a gift to Europe’s troubled and divided policymakers, even though it comes in a package labelled ‘Handle with Care’ and ‘Danger’.

President Trump’s open hostility to the European Union and his disdain for America’s European partners in NATO will be the rallying flag that Europe has lacked for a decade.

More and more European voters have forgotten what the EU is for. The old slogans of ‘no more war’ and ‘stronger together’ no longer resonate. What will strike a chord, though, is antagonism from across the Atlantic.

There’s no doubt that the populism that pushed Trump into the White House is the same blend of dissatisfaction and opportunism that produced the UK’s Brexit vote and the rise of extremist parties on Europe’s far left and far right.

But that doesn’t mean that the Trump administration will be able to tap into populist forces on this side of the Atlantic. Populists in Europe, as in Trump’s America, don’t have viable answers to the problems of sluggish growth, structural unemployment and declining competitiveness in the globalised world economy.

Trade barriers, clampdowns on migration, the rolling back of aid to poor countries and the abandonment of credible security frameworks may sound good to some voters, whether in Europe or America, but they are surefire recipes for transatlantic dissension.

The signs are that President Trump will be the catalyst for a major change in Europe’s political chemistry

That’s when EU governments will rediscover the virtues, indeed the necessity, of political and economic integration.

The Eurosceptic tide has been running strongly against the EU for a decade, ever since the financial markets crisis of 2007 turned into an economic depression and led to the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis. Although it was the half-completed nature of economic and monetary union that was largely to blame, public opinion across the EU wrongly blamed ‘too much Europe’ for their ills. Trump looks like being the antidote to this.

It’s too soon to be sure that President Trump will be the catalyst for a major change in Europe’s political chemistry, but the signs are that he’s going to perform that function ably. A thumbnail sketch of how he’ll interact with America’s longstanding allies in Europe has been provided by a senior figure from within the Republican Party, Bob Zoellick, who was President George W. Bush’s top trade negotiator before going on to head the World Bank.

Zoellick’s take is instructive. “Mr Trump,” he wrote recently, “will break with presidential practice by speaking freely without worrying about subsequent reversals…staking out audacious positions, adjusting and even disclaiming as necessary, and then trumpeting any result as a win.”

“This conduct,” he went on, “may seem shocking to foreigners who have relied on US pronouncements as (usually) sources of clear direction.”

If implemented, Trump’s approaches to NATO, Brexit and dollar devaluation each have the potential to unite Europe’s fractious, squabbling governments overnight

America’s new President clearly doesn’t have much appetite for the detail that is the fabric of the transatlantic relationship, but he’s all set to apply broad brushstrokes illustrating the way he wants to redefine it.

Trump doesn’t see NATO’s ‘all for one, one for all’ Article 5 commitment as binding. He backs Brexit and looks forward to further defections from the EU’s ranks. He thinks that the strong dollar handicaps American exports, raising fears of a dollar devaluation policy that could create havoc.

If implemented, any one of these positions would unite Europe’s fractious, squabbling governments overnight. They would also drive home to voters and the increasingly Eurosceptic media the need for deeper integration.

The EU’s member states have shied away from ‘ever closer union’ since the 2005 collapse of the ambitious project for a European constitution. Europe’s political leaders have feared, and often suffered, punishment by their electorates when appearing to sacrifice their country’s ‘sovereignty’ by handing over more powers to Brussels.

That will be Donald Trump’s gift to Europe’s frayed solidarity. The areas where he seems bent on challenging transatlantic relations – from trade to security – are those where no single European country can stand up to the US on its own. As the electoral battlegrounds are prepared for the French, Dutch and German elections this year, campaigning politicians can be more confident than before that there are votes to be won from being pro-EU.

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