Global Affairs

Europe's leaders must swallow their disdain and engage Trump

The transatlantic link, the world's single most important economic and security pillar, is at stake.


LONDON • European leaders have rushed to congratulate Mr Donald Trump on his victory in the United States presidential election. But behind reassuring pledges that the Europe and the US "will remain strong and close partners on trade, security and defence" - as British Prime Minister Theresa May put it - Europeans remain in a state of deep shock by the turn of events and deeply apprehensive about a future they no longer understand or are able to predict. The current front cover of Der Spiegel, Germany's top weekly news magazine, sums up the continent's mood in one sentence: "The end of the world as we know it", it proclaims.

It is commonplace now to regard Europe as yesterday's story, as an old continent in permanent decline. But at least when it comes to relations with the US, that's simply not true. Total US investment in the European Union remains three times higher than in all of Asia, and EU investment in the US is around eight times the amount of EU investment in India and China put together. Overall, the EU and the US economies account for about half the entire world's gross domestic product. And Nato, the alliance which binds Europe to the US, stands for the biggest concentration of military might in the history of mankind, as well as around two-thirds of the world's defence expenditure. In short, the transatlantic link between Europe and the US is not just another of the world's variable geometry partnership arrangements; despite the rise of Asia, it remains the single most important economic and security pillar in today's world.


Given its breadth and weight, the US-European alliance has survived many previous shocks unscathed, and in theory there's no reason why it won't survive Mr Trump as well. After all, Europeans were appalled when Mr Ronald Reagan became US president in the early 1980s, fearing that the B-movie Hollywood actor was about to unleash a new world war. Instead, Mr Reagan ended the Cold War and is now revered as one of Europe's greatest friends. And conversely, US politicians were frequently furious with the smug, limp-wristed Europeans who benefit from US protection but refuse to fight in America's wars. Yet the sanctions which the US applied on the Europeans for this supposed ingratitude often went no further than the symbolic renaming of french fries as "freedom fries".

Still, this time, the breach across the Atlantic is potentially far bigger, partly because Mr Trump is the first American since the 1930s to be elected on a foreign policy platform which dismisses the Europeans as irrelevant, but also because the phenomenon of Donald Trump is also one which haunts Europe's own politics. In effect, Mr Trump appears so threatening not because he is alien to Europe, but precisely because he is very familiar: he actually mirrors European ills, and his electoral victory confirms Europe's darkest fears about the continent's own political future.


Mr Trump's unexpected victory was built on a promise to "make America great again", the same nebulous but potent mix of nostalgia, nationalism and fear of foreigners which has propelled populist figures such as France's National Front boss Marine Le Pen or Mr Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, to prominence. Indeed, the European politician who is now closest to President-elect Trump is Mr Farage, who has offered to work with the next US president in order to persuade Europeans to reinstate "proper border controls and to be in charge of their own lives" by "bringing the European Union down".


But the parallels between the US and current European politics go even further. Throughout the US presidential campaign, Mr Trump and his supporters were targets of ridicule from established politicians and the mainstream media; they were commonly dismissed as boorish, ignorant individuals driven by prejudice, a "basket of deplorables" as then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton put it in one of her worst electoral gaffes. These were almost exactly the same words used in Britain against those who argued that Britain should leave the European Union when a referendum on that topic was held in June.

And just as anti-EU campaigners stunned the world by winning the British referendum and pulling the country out of the EU, so too the Trump victory stunned the US, for essentially the same reasons: those who emerged victorious in the American and British campaigns successfully appealed to people left behind by globalisation and corporate rule. And both attracted the one major constituency mainstream politicians regularly ignore: that of the white working class voters, a category of people that may appear to be monumentally unfashionable to those sipping cocktails in swanky upscale bars in London, Paris, Berlin or New York, but still commands the necessary number of votes to decide who rules their countries.

The "forgotten men and women", the "people who work hard but no longer have a voice" - as Mr Trump put it - are those who propelled him to power. The American rebellion against the established order mirrors almost exactly the British voters' rebellion earlier this year; Mr Trump is essentially Brexit on a larger scale. And the way his victory signifies the marginalisation of America's Democratic Party as the standard-bearer of the working class, so the rise of populists in Europe is marginalising socialist parties throughout the European continent: from Britain to Germany, France, Italy or Spain, the viable alternative to mainstream right-wing politics is not the left, but an even more extreme form of the right.

None of this necessarily means that populists are now likely to use the Trump model and seize one European country after another; a good case can be made that precisely the opposite may happen, as the shock of Mr Trump's election galvanises many European voters - and particularly the young - to cast their ballots against populists. Nevertheless, Mr Trump's victory has legitimised many political recipes which until recently were dismissed as just crazy, such as tearing up international trade treaties, or building walls to keep foreigners out. And that's bound to have a negative impact on European politics.


But a far bigger challenge to Europe is the fact that Mr Trump is the first president to look at the continent in purely transactional terms. Unlike any of his predecessors since 1945, he does not see the relationship as one of shared values or interests, but more as a business proposition: if the deal on offer is not good enough, the US can simply withdraw, he claims. Mr Trump also sees relations with Russia as a real estate arrangement: if the price is right, there is no reason why bits of land cannot be transferred to an opponent. That may work perfectly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also sees the world in real estate terms, and hopes to divide Europe into spheres of influence.

What can Europe do to avoid or at least diminish the serious threat of losing an ally and a security guarantee at the same time?

Certainly not what the continent is doing at the moment.

European leaders continue to treat Mr Trump with barely disguised contempt, as someone who needs to be contained, rather than engaged in a dialogue.

The emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers held last night to discuss Mr Trump's election was a grievous mistake, for all it did was to position Europe as an opponent of a US president who is still two months away from office.

Loose talk about the urgent need to create an "European army", as EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put it, also does not help; it merely diverts attention from the serious need to increase European contributions to Nato, a demand which President-elect Trump justifiably makes.

European politicians should be doubly careful to avoid criticising Mr Trump - not only because they may lose an early opportunity to influence the incoming administration, but also because most European governments will face a strong anti-American backlash from their own voters. For Mr Trump is the archetypal "ugly American" in the eyes of many European voters, and huge demonstrations against the new US leader are to be expected wherever he goes. European governments will need to tame these outbursts of anti-Americanism which will be strongest in Germany and France if they are to limit the damage to transatlantic ties.

The key job for EU politicians is not, therefore, to emphasise how sophisticated Europe is compared to the raw and even "primitive" politics of the US but, rather, how to protect the instincts, values and ideas which unite the two continents as politics in Washington and Europe draw increasingly apart, and as anti-American backlash grows.

Either way, if Asians anticipate a testy relationship with Mr Trump, they'd better spare a thought for Europe which, literally overnight, has seen most of its assumptions about the durability of the alliance with the US upended. Seldom before has a week been such a long time in politics.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline Europe's leaders must swallow their disdain and engage Trump. Subscribe