Containing the Trump threat in Europe
US President Donald Trump is clearly no leader of the free world. According to a new Pew Research Centre study, he is deeply unpopular in most countries, and has already done serious damage to the United States' reputation.
Pew finds that three quarters of the world has little or no confidence in Trump, whose favourability in most countries is now below that of George W. Bush when he left office. By that time, Bush had invaded Iraq and presided over the beginning of the 2008 global financial crisis. Even in neighbouring Canada, just 22 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence in Trump.
Sentiment toward Trump is even more unfavourable in Western Europe. In Germany, only 6 percent of respondents think he is qualified to hold his current office, and 91 percent regard him as arrogant. Similarly, 89 percent of respondents in the United Kingdom think Trump is arrogant, and only 50 percent still believe that the US and the UK have a special relationship now that he is in office. This may help to explain why Trump's scheduled state visit to the UK has been postponed indefinitely.
The countries where Trump has the most widespread support are Poland (73 percent see the US favourably) and Hungary (63 percent), which are both led by populist right-wing governments. Poland's defence minister has already described Trump's planned visit to Warsaw this week as an "enormous event" and a "huge success" for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government, which has continued to rage against the European Commission and alienate Poland's European allies.
Under the PiS, Poland has been drifting steadily toward authoritarianism and has become increasingly isolated within the European Union. So, it is not surprising that Trump would want to visit the country. After all, this is a president who campaigned on a platform of "America first" nationalism, bet on the far-right French populist Marine Le Pen, and applauded the outcome of the Brexit referendum, even musing that other countries should consider following the UK out of the EU.
Given his track record, Trump will undoubtedly try to deepen the EU's internal divisions, by playing its eastern flank against its western members. The Hungarian and Polish governments are both eager to advance their projects of "illiberal democracy." And we can expect to see Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland's unelected de facto ruler, Jarosław Kaczyński, gladly indulge Trump's bigotry; indeed, it will be music to their ears.
Trump's simplistic, xenophobic rhetoric will also find a sympathetic audience among Poles and Hungarians who fear large-scale immigration. In recent years, large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe's electorates have been mobilised by populist rhetoric, and the region's governments have refused to cooperate with the EU's collective response to the refugee crisis. While polls suggest that Western European electorates are coming back around to supporting European integration and pro-European reformers, this positive mood has not yet reached Central and Eastern Europe, where suspicion toward the EU remains strong.
Unfortunately, the political environment in Central and Eastern Europe is ideal for populists who refuse to participate constructively in the European project. Given this, and the very real danger that other countries could pursue their own exit from the bloc, Trump must not be allowed to exacerbate existing divisions. Central Europeans must understand that moving to Europe's periphery will harm their own vital interests, by undermining their ability to influence the future of the continent. It is up to these countries to seek a compromise that enables them to continue participating in and influencing common policies.
No one has more to gain from a divided Europe than Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long sought to disrupt the EU by destabilising countries on its eastern periphery. For this reason, the European Commission, the European Council, and the French and German governments need to use all of the means at their disposal to ensure that the rule of law in Central and Eastern Europe is maintained.
At the same time, the European Commission and leading member-state governments should reach out to those in Central and Eastern European countries who still uphold and defend EU ideals. We need to change public opinion and build bridges in policy areas that are currently creating divisions, including migration, posted workers from one country to another within the EU, and energy policy.
With respect to the last of these issues, the EU urgently needs to create a true energy union to reduce its dependence on outside, increasingly hostile countries, not least Russia. And we should develop a credible European Defence Union within NATO, which would strengthen cooperation across the EU and alleviate eastern member states' security concerns.
Within the EU, there is room for compromise on all of these issues. If we can find common ground, we can start to bring the people of Central and Eastern Europe back on board. It is in no one's interest — except, of course, Putin's — to allow any EU member states to be pushed into a corner, and potentially toward the door.
It is now up to Europe's leaders and the Trump administration's more responsible members, such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis, to prevent the US president from harming the EU. To do otherwise would be to risk weakening the Western alliance, upon which global stability and order rests.
The writer, a former Belgian prime minister, is President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)