Atlantic era under threat with Donald Trump in White House
Faced with hostility from Washington, London and Moscow, the EU looks towards Beijing

by: Gideon Rachman

 Outgoing US vice-president Joe Biden: 'The defence of free nations in Europe has always been America’s fight' © AP

Listen to the speeches and the corridor conversations in Davos and it is hard to avoid the impression that the west — as a political concept — is on the point of collapse.

Nobody puts it quite like that. On the contrary, Joe Biden, the outgoing US vice-president, argued that “the defence of free nations in Europe has always been America’s fight”. Anthony Scaramucci, who is Donald Trump’s appointed emissary to the World Economic Forum, also battled to convince his audience that the incoming US president understands the importance of both Nato and the EU.

But both Mr Biden and Mr Scaramucci protested a little too much. Neither man could erase the impact of comments made by Mr Trump himself. In an interview given to two European newspapers, shortly before Davos, Mr Trump had reiterated his view that the Nato alliance is “obsolete” and praised Britain’s decision to leave the EU, adding — “If you ask me, more countries will leave.”

If the Trump administration follows through on the new president’s disdain for both Nato and the EU, the US would be pulling back from the two key institutions underpinning the Atlantic alliance.

Mr Biden observed correctly that support for European integration has been a consistent principle of US foreign policy since the 1950s. But Mr Trump’s closest political friends in Europe are politicians that are deeply hostile to the EU. The incoming president’s claim, in his recent interview, that the EU is “a vehicle for the Germans” and his predictions of further disintegration of the EU, perfectly channel the political views of his pal, Nigel Farage — the leader of the UK Independence party. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, was recently photographed in Trump Tower in New York — and has hailed Mr Trump’s victory as the beginning of a new world.
All of this is causing understandable anxiety in Europe. As one senior EU official in Davos puts it — “I try to be as forward-looking and optimistic as I can, but the threats are large.”

The biggest immediate threat to the EU comes from Brexit. Speaking first in London and then in Davos, Theresa May, the British prime minister, confirmed that Britain intends to press ahead with its divorce from the EU — and that it will also leave the EU’s single market, and probably the customs union as well.

Mrs May’s speech was greeted in Davos with a mixture of sadness, bafflement and apprehension.

There was sadness among continental Europeans because few want to see Britain leave the EU. There was bafflement at the confident tone of Mrs May, since it is widely believed that Brexit will cause Britain significant economic harm. But there was also apprehension because it is obvious that a bruising and massively complex negotiation lies ahead.

Mrs May was at pains in Davos to assure her audience that Britain wants a strong EU. But if and when negotiations between the UK and the EU sour, British attitudes are likely to change.

At that point, the EU could face hostility from Moscow, Washington and London — all of whom could be encouraging populist anti-EU movements inside continental Europe.

This threat considerably raises the significance of a series of elections in Europe this year. The Davos consensus is that Euro-hostile parties are unlikely to win the elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. But everybody is aware that the chances of a Trump presidency and of Brexit were also confidently dismissed in Davos last year — so there is palpable nervousness about what lies ahead in 2017.

There is also a continuing sense of incredulity that Mr Trump is indeed about to be sworn in as president of the US. Many Europeans are still inclined to clutch at straws — whether in the form of rising stock markets, or the solid credentials of some Trump appointees. There is also a sensible disinclination, on the part of senior Europeans, to make matters worse with florid denunciations of the incoming president.

But — behind the scenes and between the lines of statements — there is a dawning realisation that the age of Atlanticism may be drawing to a close. Under these circumstances, EU officials are now looking with increasing interest towards Beijing. The defence of globalisation offered in Davos by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, was warmly received. One senior EU official says that, with Mr Trump threatening to renege on the Paris climate accords: “It will be up to the EU and China to take the lead on climate change.” The same official also suggests that the EU must now be “much more proactive” in working with China on a range of other issues, including international trade and investment.

When it comes to security, there is a grudging recognition among EU officials that Mr Trump is right to argue that European nations do not spend enough on defence. But there is little confidence that the broader political understandings that underpin the Nato alliance will necessarily survive the Trump presidency. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor (who is not in Davos), captured the new mood, when she remarked recently: “Europe needs to look after itself.” After all, Uncle Sam has changed beyond recognition.

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