Donald Trump is doing Europe a favor

As pressure on the EU mounts, White House hostility could even strengthen the unión

Gideon Rachman

The EU is infected by a “populist leprosy”; its fate hangs in the balance; the cracks in the organisation are widening. These are not the ravings of a deluded Brexiter. On the contrary, they are the views of, respectively, the president of France, the chancellor of Germany and the president of the European Commission.

Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker were speaking before last week’s EU summit. The agreement reached there on migration allowed the three leaders to claim modest progress. But there is no doubt that internal pressures on the EU are mounting. With populist and nationalist politicians in power in Italy, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Slovenia, it is becoming harder to form an EU consensus. Further rows on migration, reform of the eurozone and the EU budget are all but guaranteed.

External pressures are also mounting. Donald Trump’s hostility to the bloc becomes plainer by the day. Last week the US president tweeted that the EU was “set up to take advantage of the US”, a dramatic departure from America’s traditionally supportive attitude. In a couple of weeks’ time, Mr Trump will hold his first summit with another leader with a considerable animus against the EU: Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The EU’s political leaders have reason to watch that meeting with real apprehension.

If Mr Trump follows through on his threat to levy huge tariffs on European cars, the pressures on EU leaders will only increase. Yet, oddly enough, the Trump administration may be doing the bloc a favour. Just at the time that internal tensions are building among the 28 member states, the US is reminding them of the importance of a collective defence of European interests.

European leaders are intensely aware that America’s EU strategy (as well as China’s and Russia’s) is likely to be an effort to “divide and rule”. With its 28 national governments (soon to be 27) and ponderous governance structure, the EU is a tempting target for such tactics. But, for all their differences, the bloc’s leaders understand the strategic importance of their unity on trade, particularly if a global trade war is indeed in the offing.

Small countries are at the mercy of American pressure on trade. But the EU’s economy is collectively larger than that of the US. The size of the European internal market offers its nations some form of protection against bullying from Washington, as well as the possibility of meaningful retaliation. Indeed, further retaliatory measures are being prepared in Brussels should the US carry through on its threats to the European car industry.

The EU’s awareness of the strategic and economic value of its internal market is reflected in the strong and unified position it has taken on the Brexit negotiations. British attempts to “cherry pick” some of the internal market’s benefits have been firmly rebuffed. At a time of division on so many other issues, the EU27 seem to be relishing their unity and power in the Brexit negotiations.

Evidence of EU strength is badly needed because the cracks that were papered over at the Brussels summit last week are bound to open again, soon. The plan to create processing centres for asylum seekers inside and outside the EU has big practical, political and legal hurdles to overcome. It fails to answer the question of who will host the centres, and where migrants (successful and unsuccessful) will be resettled. The package of eurozone reforms also looks thin. And an even larger battle is looming, as the bloc begins consideration of its next budget.

The populist tide could have further to rise, with nationalist parties such as the Sweden Democrats and the Alternative for Germany still gaining in the polls. The European Parliament elections in 2019 — ideal territory for protest voters — could dramatically change the tone in Brussels. At that point, the traditional federalist strategy of calling for a strengthening of the powers of the parliament could backfire spectacularly. The barbarians will be inside the gates.

As both Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have hinted, it is entirely possible that these mounting pressures — internal and external — could cause the EU to disintegrate. If the EU cannot make its migrant deal work, then countries will increasingly resort to unilateral actions, in particular, by restoring border checks to stop internal flows of migrants. That would imperil the bloc’s cherished Schengen zone of passport-free travel. The failure to agree deep reforms to the eurozone also puts the threat of the break-up of the euro back on the table.

But the risks involved in the break-up of the single currency are likely to remain a powerful constraint on the radicalism of the populists. The EU retains a remarkable ability to turn outsiders into members of the club. Witness the transformation of Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister of Greece, who in three years has changed from socialist firebrand to smooth-talking, tax-cutting, European federalist.

It is distinctly possible that the current generation of populists will undergo similar transformations as they realise the value of EU membership and the risks of breaking up the club. If so, the EU could yet shake off its troubling bout of leprosy, and confound the critics once again.

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