Concern in Brussels and Berlin Trump Spells End of Normality for Europe
Donald Trump's election has put establishment politicians in Europe in a state of panic. In Berlin, nobody knows what the US president-elect intends to do. In Brussels, fears are growing he will put wind into the sails of the growing anti-EU populist movement. BY SPIEGEL Staff
Angela Merkel has no lack of experience in dealing with egocentric men. The chancellor has known Russian President Vladimir Putin for years and she speaks regularly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the phone.
After the surprising victory of self-made politician Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, another member of this species will now be added to the group. No wonder, then, that the German chancellor wanted to call the new US president-elect as quickly as possible on Wednesday.
The only problem was that no one in the German government had a number to call. It was only after the Chancellery in Berlin requested assistance from the German Embassy in Washington that they were able to reach a contact close to Trump.
The election victory of Trump, literally the embodiment of the new wave of angry voters, creates fresh challenges for the German political elite, not just when it comes to the phone directory. Most leading politicians among both the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) had been convinced that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would prevail in the election. Now they are all facing the same difficult question. How do you react when the incoming occupant of the most powerful position in the Western world sees himself as a populist and is threatening to end traditional Western alliances?
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who recently branded Trump a "hate preacher," has said he is preparing for "difficult times." The chancellor herself also reminded the president-elect that "democracy, freedom, respect for the law and for human dignity, regardless of ancestry, skin color, religion, gender and sexual orientation" are all values that must be defended -- the very ones that the Republican candidate more or less openly questioned during his campaign.
Trump's triumph raises questions that a postwar German government has never before faced. Will the United States now withdraw from its role as the leading Western power? Will Trump close ranks with autocratic leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin? Will the next US president become the leader of a new international movement that opposes cosmopolitanism, freedom of expression and the principles of parliamentarian democracy?
These are questions that no one can answer at this point. But one thing is certain: Trump means the end of normality in German politics.
The challenge could not be greater. After all, populists are gaining ground in Europe at the moment as well. In many EU countries, they are already well on their way to becoming the strongest political force. Two EU countries already have populist prime ministers and a series of elections and referenda in the coming months could further strengthen them. Little wonder, then, that Hungary's national-conservative prime minister, Viktor Orbán, celebrated the outcome of the US election as "good news" and that Frauke Petry, head of Germany's right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, is crowing about a "political turning point."
No Answer to the Populist Threat
What is weighing even heavier at the moment is that the political establishment in Europe still hasn't found an answer to the populist threat. In Brussels, EU leaders are sticking to their "more Europe" mantra, even as pronounced anti-EU sentiment is growing back in their home countries.
In Berlin, meanwhile, the parties in Merkel's coalition government are struggling to find the right recipes to combat the AfD's rise. Leaders with Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are divided over whether they should continue to pursue their path of modernization or whether they should reemphasize their more traditional conservative roots. On the left, the Social Democrats have looked on with dismay as right-wing populists have sought to lure away their traditional party base, the working class, in a phenomenon similar to what has taken place in the US.
These developments make it all the more essential for leading German politicians to have a clear view of what the next US president might do. Will Trump join the line-up of populist leaders chipping away at the principles of democracy and rule of law the way Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's governing Law and Justice party, is doing? Or will things not be that bad, as those who have faith in the strength of the American system of democracy, which has existed for hundreds of years and contains numerous checks and balances, believe?
The problem at the moment is that nobody knows. In the past, governments in the democratic West has at least a broad idea of what to expect following significant elections on either side of the Atlantic. Established contacts between conservative or left-leaning politicians on the two continents guaranteed as much.
But now a self-avowed political outsider is taking the helm, and he's an unknown quantity. Suddenly, the usual channels, personal relations and institutional-level contacts -- in other words, the entire network of German-American relations -- are worth nothing. Prior to the election, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen inquired within her ministry if any officials or military leaders had contact with Trump or anyone close to him. Nobody did.
The same is true elsewhere. When Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee in parliament on Wednesday, he was flooded with questions from MPs. What does Trump's victory mean for Germany? How will it transform German foreign policy? But Steinmeier doesn't know either.
No Reliable Contacts with Trump Camps
Despite several efforts, Steinmeier's diplomats haven't succeeded in establishing reliable contacts within the Trump camp. Senior Foreign Ministry official Markus Ederer did meet with Trump advisor Sam Clovis in April. At the time, the retired Air Force colonel sought to convince Ederer there was no reason to fear a Trump victory. But when Ederer pressed for details, the Iowa Republican couldn't provide them. Peter Witting, Germany's ambassador to the United States, had a similar experience in Washington when he met with Trump's stepson Jared Kushner in the spring.
"Not even Henry Kissinger could help us," Steinmeier told the Foreign Affairs Committee. Kissinger met with Trump in May. "Trump appears to view foreign policy largely from a domestic perspective," one source in the Chancellery says.
As such, Berlin is aware that hopes Trump will quickly forget his campaign pledges once he moves into the White House could ultimately prove illusory. And it hardly matters which of his ludicrous plans he begins implementing after taking the January oath of office: The mere fact that a self-professed opponent of immigrants and globalization like Trump could become president is likely to exacerbate Europe's populism problem.
For many in Brussels, Trump's election reminded them of the morning of June 24, the day after Britain voted for Brexit. Then, too, politicians had assumed the vote would turn out differently and then too, the the EU establishment remained committed to business as usual.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, for example, sees Trump's election as a wake-up call for deeper European integration. "It should be clear to everyone that the refugee crisis, fighting terrorism or any international conflicts can only be solved through a joint European approach," says Schulz. Elmar Brok, an influential member of the European Parliament with the conservative CDU, wants to use his party's next conference in Germany to promote efforts pushing for a common EU foreign and security policy -- in part as a reaction to potential new external threats. "Josef Stalin was the first unifier of Europe," he says. "In a certain sense, Trump has the opportunity to be the second."
Strong Response from Europe Unlikely
This Sunday, the foreign ministers of the EU plan to meet at a hastily convened dinner in Brussels to discuss the consequences of the US election. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn wants to probe other countries to see how truly committed they are to the European Union. "How do you feel about the EU?" he intends to ask.
Still, it is highly unlikely that politicians in Brussels are going to agree to any ambitious roadmap for European unification. Already, populists participate in the governments of several Central and Eastern European countries. Given that many important European Union decisions must be taken unanimously, their presence is a significant stumbling block.
Besides, Europe is already facing a number of other important decisions. In December, Italy's center-left, social democratic prime minister, Matteo Renzi, must hold a referendum on constitutional reform in the country that could cost him his job. Austria will also elect a new president that month and there's a good chance that Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), will win. A few months later, Marine La Pen will battle to become president of France. It's considered highly unlikely that the head of the national-conservative Front National will get elected, but if that did happen, EU Parliament President Schulz has predicted to close confidants, "It would be the end of the EU."
'Misogynists and Xenophobes Feel Emboldened'
Members of the European Parliament consider it a foregone conclusion that Trump's election will put wind in the sails of populists in Europe who are already gaining ground. "Of course misogynists and xenophobes all across Europe feel emboldened by an election victor who plays the same tune as they do," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a foreign policy expert in the European Parliament with the business-friendly Free Democrats. And Donald Tusk, the president of the powerful European Council, which represents the interests of the EU leaders, even believes that the European political order could be in danger." The events of recent months and days should be seen by all those who believe in liberal democracy as a warning signal," he says.
The problem is that this message isn't getting across to people in Europe right now. What counts inside the biotope of Brussels bureaucrats is facts and legalese -- regulations on equity capital quotas or environmentally sound design -- but these aren't the things that draw people closer to this union of nations. And the attempt by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to interpret his office as one of EU political leadership is perceived even in EU circles as being more of a threat than a reality.
What's needed right now is for the leaders and heads of states of the EU member states themselves to defend European integration. But out of fear of Le Pen and her ilk, political leaders are currently more likely to emulate the populists than to firmly resist them. When Italian Prime Minister Renzi, for example, spoke out last week against the stability and growth pact and its austerity measures, he said: "We are sick of doing what Brussels demands of us. The time of the diktat has come to an end." Populist politicians across the EU us exactly the same vocabulary.
The EU Is Losing Ground
The result is that Europe is losing its proponents and many people no longer see the EU as an answer to globalization but as part of the problem. "Some people have come to think that the institution of European has nothing to do with them," Juncker lamented in a speech in Berlin on Wednesday.
The EU is no longer succeeding in developing a common vision for the community of nations. Meanwhile, the populists are in the process of developing a competing network across Europe as a counter to the EU. In early summer, Petry had a meet-and-greet dinner with Le Pen, and they reportedly got along swimmingly. Petry's AfD party has already developed close ties with Austria's FPÖ, and Petry and FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache met in June on the Zugspitze, Germany's highest peak, with numerous TV reporters in tow.
- Part 1: Trump Spells End of Normality for Europe
- Part 2: German Populists Have a New Hero: Donald Trump