In the absence of true engagement by the US president, Europe’s leaders have the chance to redefine their relationship with the White House.
One year on, what has been the impact of Donald Trump on Europe? How have governments reacted to him? Though the scenario once feared of a populist tidal wave unleashed on the continent by Trump’s victory in the US did not materialise, it would be naive to think Europe’s problems have disappeared.
Still, much has changed in that year. Remember how, on the day of Trump’s election, the leader of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen, tweeted elatedly: “Congratulations to the American people, free!” Florian Philippot, one of her close aides, cast the US political earthquake as a portent for liberal Europe: “Their world is crumbling,” he said. “Ours is being built.” One year on, not only has Le Pen suffered defeat at the ballot box, but she now finds herself struggling: her party split, her credibility in shambles.
Meanwhile, a young, centrist French president makes sweeping speeches on rejuvenating Europe’s unique brand of democracy – market economy and social justice combined – as opposed to US market economy without social justice, and China’s state capitalism without either social justice or democracy. Emmanuel Macron’s election and Angela Merkel’s re-election (even if weakened) can indeed both be read as a response to Trump; proof that Europe can stabilise rather than break apart.
Trump was seen as a significant asset to the anti-establishment forces wanting to dismantle the European project. Shortly after his inauguration, far-right leaders across the continent hailed their own “patriotic spring”. But it didn’t happen. Why? Look to Europe’s complex political patchwork, and the saving grace of its economic upturn.
Trump may have dreamed of unifying Europe under an alt-right banner. He may even think of Poland’s populist government (which welcomed him lavishly in July), as a pillar of western white nationalist “civilisational” survival. But he has found that the repulsion he inspires in Europe outweighs his appeal to fringe or extremist forces.
Governments are still seeking to mitigate the damage he can cause to the transatlantic link. If Europe has lived for 70 years under Pax Americana, now it is having to live with Pax Trumpana. It is also having to differentiate the bluster from the concrete decisions. Trump’s administration has extended Nato deployments in Europe’s east, and for all the talk, has done nothing to upend sanctions against Russia. Trump’s bromance with Vladimir Putin, much feared at the outset, has not blossomed – not least because the multiple accusations of campaign collusion are a hindrance to him domestically.
Europe’s leaders have learned to deal with him at different times in different ways. There has been the approach of holding the nose and engaging, even to the point of obsequiousness. This is an approach attempted by leaders in Britain and by Macron, whose muscular handshake in Brussels – suggesting distance – was swiftly followed by the red carpet treatment for Trump at the 14 July national day celebrations in Paris. Macron has since told Time magazine he has a “very good personal relationship” with Trump.
Britain and France have different reasons to deal with Trump: one needs a post-Brexit trade agreement, another might prioritise anti-terrorism cooperation. Both unite in opposition to Trump’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal, and dismay at Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
Germany’s chancellor opted for a more confrontational tone, hardly disguising her disgust with a man who embodies everything that her personal history – her experience of dictatorship, as well as her country’s postwar politics – has made her wary of.
But Germany also knows that it needs the US; there is no real European plan B to American security guarantees on the continent – not in the age of Putinism and terrorism. One Merkel aide puts it bluntly: “There is no way Europe can do everything by itself.” Trying to fix Europe is one thing; trying to replace the US role is a bigger task altogether.
So Trump has had an effect, but it may not be the one he, or we, expected. He has affected the mindset. It may be that Trump’s most toxic effect in Europe has been to start a whole new debate in intellectual circles in places such as Berlin as to whether transatlanticism still makes sense. With those questions being asked more widely, it is possible that the signal achievement of Trump will be to open up a new form of anti-Americanism on the continent. Le Pen applauded Trump a year ago not because he was American but because of his white nationalism. The far left, from Corbyn to Mélenchon in France, denounces Trump for what he is, but not for the attitudes he may unleash.
In the end, the extent to which Trump has an impact on or damages Europe will depend on Europe as much as him. For all the insults he’s thrown at the EU and at alliances, what has most clearly emerged about his view of Europe is a studied indifference. He may well be more inconsistent and shallow than actively hostile. He is focused on himself. So far he has mostly let his minders, the generals in the administration, handle Europe. Deep down, one suspects, he really couldn’t care less about us. There’s probably some good in that.