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Europe Processing Donald Trump Challenge

  • Luis Ramirez

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks with the media prior to an EU summit outside his hotel in Valletta, Malta on Feb. 2, 2017.

When European Council President Donald Tusk put out an open letter this week describing the Trump administration as a "threat" to Europe, his message was clear: Europe must unite or fall prey to threats from Russia. But European governments are far from united in their approach to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Some governments, like that of Britain's Theresa May, see their interests better served by engaging and aligning with the new U.S. administration. Others, like Germany and France, have chosen to confront.

The differing approaches show the challenges that European leaders face in adapting to Trump, whom they can love or loathe, but cannot ignore.

“Europe is not adapting very well at the moment,” said John Ryan, a professor of political economy at the London School of Economics. “I think there's a degree of shock at the election result, and also I don't think that European politicians or media really followed closely enough what Donald Trump was saying on the campaign trail.”

Among Trump's campaign promises that have jarred Europeans were his plans to restrict travel from some majority-Muslim countries and his pledge to demand more contributions to NATO from member countries that he says are not paying their share.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Feb. 1, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Feb. 1, 2017.

Britain's alignment

Britain has chosen the path of alignment, observers say, as a political necessity.

“One of the things politically that our government has to show is that post Brexit, Britain is not isolated, we have friends and we have allies. And if that friend and that ally happens to be the most powerful country on earth, so much the better,” said Anand Menon, Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London.

The EU's calls for unity have been blunt in their characterization of Trump's policies.

In his letter this week, Tusk named “worrying declarations by the new American administration” among a list of external threats on par with Russia, China, and radical Islam. Those threats, he wrote, “all make our future highly unpredictable.”

The language was striking, reflecting a growing nervousness among the EU leadership.

“In Brussels there is a degree of concern that pillars of the traditional transatlantic relationship are starting to look a bit wobblier than people would have liked, and that Europe needs to start preemptively talking about that,” said Menon.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens during a press conference with Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 2, 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens during a press conference with Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 2, 2017.

Merkel's challenge

American and European media have sometimes touted Germany's Angela Merkel as the new leader of the free world and some observers, as well as some leaders, expect some governments in Europe to rally around the German leader to present a united front.

Quiet anxiety about the Trump administration turned into open criticism this week following the implementation of an executive order that temporarily barred entry into the United States for citizens of seven mainly Muslim countries.U.S. officials say the measure, supported by roughly one-half of Americans, is not aimed specifically at Muslims and was necessary “to safeguard the American people, our homeland, our values” against terrorism.

The American action has been welcomed by a few far-right parties and governments in Europe, including the leaders of Hungary and Poland. But Merkel has emerged as the prospective leader of what media are characterizing as a continent-wide rebellion against Trump's policy.

“I have made it clear once again that the fight against terrorism does not justify a general advance against certain countries,” she has said.

Also critical has been French President Francois Hollande, who recently accused the new U.S. administration of “encouraging populism, and even extremism.”

Neither leader is on secure ground as their countries prepare for national elections this year.

Merkel, while riding high in the polls, has been weakened by the migrant crisis, which saw her country absorb 1.1 million migrants last year alone, and a rising far-right, anti-immigration movement.

Hollande, with popularity ratings sinking to 4 percent at the end of 2016, will not run for re-election, and a strong push is under way from the right to elect anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen — or at the very least a center-right candidate with views that are more sympathetic to Trump.

“You're talking really about whether Paris and Berlin and London could do something for European unity and that is very, very difficult with Britain on its way out [of the EU], and Paris and Berlin being under pressure from populist movements that are anti-European Union,” said Ryan.

Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen from France delivers a speech in Koblenz, Germany, Jan. 21, 2017.
Far-right leader and candidate for next spring presidential elections Marine le Pen from France delivers a speech in Koblenz, Germany, Jan. 21, 2017.

Transatlantic relationship

Observers note it is still early, and European leaders are waiting for more clarity on exactly what Trump's strongly stated positions will mean for the longer-term Transatlantic relationship.

They are nervous, though, and how they adapt will depend on whether Trump follows through on his promises, as well as what the political landscape in Europe looks like after elections in France and Germany.

“This uncertainty could not have come at a worse time for Europe,” wrote Hans Kundnani, a Europe researcher at the Transatlantic Academy. “There have been many calls for Europeans to pull together — and, as usual, some hopes that a crisis might force further integration.”

The U.S. president continues to be the subject of ridicule in some European newspapers and comedy shows. A newspaper in Britain on Thursday quoted Sir Bernard Ingham, a former spokesman for the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as saying “Trump's narrowed eyes and belligerent posture” make him appear like Italy's World War II leader “Benito Mussolini with a wig.”

At some point, observers say Europeans will have no choice but to adapt and deal with the new administration.

“British media were certainly giving a free pass to Hillary Clinton, and really hoping or thinking that Hillary Clinton would win the election and really just cast Donald Trump in sort of a parody, and never really looked closely enough at his policy and now he's in power,” said Ryan.

“There is a case for Donald Trump to moderate his stance, but at the same time, you have to ask the Europeans to moderate their statements when they don't like what they're hearing,” Ryan said.

“Of course we can't ignore the president of the United States. We have to take him at his word, and from a European perspective, there has to be less talk and more getting on with things,” he said.

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