Containing the Trump threat in Europe

Guy Verhofstadt
Guy Verhofstadt

Guy Verhofstadt

By : Guy Verhofstadt

:: US President Donald Trump is clearly no leader of the free world. According to a new Pew Research Center study, he is deeply unpopular in most countries and has already done serious damage to America’s reputation.

Pew finds that three-quarters of the world has little or no confidence in Trump, whose favorability 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 neighboring Canada, just 22 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence in Trump.

Sentiment toward him is even more unfavorable 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 UK think Trump is arrogant, and only 50 percent still believe the US and UK have a special relationship now that he is in office. This may help explain why his 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 favorably) and Hungary (63 percent), which are both led by populist right-wing governments.

Poland’s defense 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 EU. So it is unsurprising that Trump would want to visit the country. After all, he 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 follow 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 eager to advance their projects of “illiberal democracy.” We can expect to see Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s unelected de facto ruler Jarosław Kaczynski gladly indulge Trump’s bigotry; indeed, it will be music to their ears.

Trump’s simplistic, xenophobic rhetoric will 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 mobilized by populist rhetoric, and the region’s governments have refused to cooperate with the EU’s collective response to the refugee crisis.

Three-quarters of the world has little or no confidence in Trump, whose favorability in most countries is now below that of George W. Bush when he left office.

Guy Verhofstadt

While polls suggest Western European electorates are coming back around to supporting continental 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 EU, 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 destabilizing countries on its eastern periphery. For this reason, the European Commission, the European Council and the French and German governments need to use all the means at their disposal to ensure 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 development a credible European Defense 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 these issues. If we can find common ground, we can start to bring Central and Eastern European publics back on board. It is in no one’s interest except 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 Defense Secretary 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.

:: Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament and the author of “Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union.”

:: Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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