Donald Trump’s vulgarity, arrogance and rudeness is uniting Europe
Donald Trump’s visit to Europe has left the continent’s leaders both aghast and determined to make the best of a bad situation. There is, after all, nothing that brings people together better than having to confront a common problem. So goes the theory, at least.
Minute analysis of the man’s handshakes, pushing and shoving, and vocabulary (or lack of) brings to mind the excruciating efforts Europeans once put into deciphering the inner workings of the Politburo. Trumpology has become a European science, and it’s as much guesswork as Kremlinology was.
But it has a positive effect. Just like the Soviet threat forced Europeans to focus their minds on what they had in common and how they could protect it, Trump may be starting to help improve Europe’s ability to integrate. The continent’s interests lie in making sure the toxicity of Trump is somehow curtailed. That can only happen if it sets new ambitions for itself. Just weeks after Emmanuel Macron’s electoral victory in France brought a major moment of solace, Trump’s tour will have starkly reminded Europeans of the new world of uncertainties, and the need to pull together.
This is why, although not an entirely new message, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s words about Europe no longer being able to “depend completely on others,” and now holding “its fate in its own hands”, rang as a logical conclusion to a dismaying three days of Trumpian diplomacy. Her statement no doubt served many purposes, ahead of Germany’s September elections. Casting yourself as the anti-Trump voice can only give your approval ratings a boost.
Angela Merkel: ‘EU can’t rely completely on the US and UK’
In truth, Trump’s mixture of vulgarity, arrogance, ignorance and rudeness makes Europeans secretly feel extremely good about their own sophistication and civilised manners. Contrasts can be soothing. Just as Europeans decided Brexit needed to be dealt with in unity (not to spite or punish the British, whose withdrawal is mostly a source of bafflement and sadness, but because the EU wants to limit damage), Trump is fast turning into a binding factor.
There were strong echoes of this when officials and analysts from Europe and the US met in Bratislava this weekend for a conference on transatlantic issues. One comment doing the rounds was that European leaders might want to wear “I survived 25 May 2017” T-shirts, in reference to Trump’s acrimonious comments about Nato budget contributions. Set against expectations that Nato’s article 5 (on collective security) would be expressly reiterated, Trump’s silence was a shock, but in Bratislava a common sentiment was, “well, what can one expect from him?” The notion that Europe might allow its fate to be entirely tied to a US president like Trump is fast dissipating.
What comes next, however, is much less clear. Europe hardly has a big stick to carry around, and its security will, for the foreseeable future, largely rest on US engagement on the continent. Merkel hinted at this in her choice of words: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over.”
All the same, a few patterns may be emerging. First, there’s the notion that Brexit, however inward-looking it has made the British, will in fact bring more, not less, UK commitment to European strategic affairs. Some experts point to past experience: after Britain turned its back on joint western action in reaction to a mass chemical attack in Syria in 2013, its government scrambled to demonstrate that this wasn’t a case of isolationism nor a withdrawal from collective responsibilities. Indeed Britain went on to host the 2014 Nato summit, which led to deployments in eastern Europe to deter further Russian moves against its neighbours.
The logic goes like this: when Britain’s international reputation is severely damaged (which is the case with Brexit, whatever Theresa May’s posturing), it strives to show it remains at the centre of global affairs in facing common challenges – of which there are many facing Europe, such as Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Islamic State.
Second, the renewed Franco-German partnership has created a dynamic that others on the continent will have to adapt to. Officials in central Europe are paying attention to Merkel and Macron’s obvious closeness, and they will want to ensure they are not left behind in the debate on deeper European integration.
Central Europe is often seen as a single, homogeneous bloc of naysayers (especially after it erupted in opposition to Merkel over the refugee issue), but that perception is increasingly erroneous. For one thing, there is not much that unites Hungary’s Viktor Orbán with the Czech and Slovak governments, which are much more intent on demonstrating they are dedicated members of the European club. There is also talk of organising a Franco-German-Polish summit as a way of hopefully bringing Poland’s populist leadership back on an EU track.
After Trump’s tour, Britain will need to be increasingly mindful that he has become the living embodiment of everything Europe is meant to stand up against. Europeans have long known they need to get their act together, if only because their relative share of global wealth and power will continue to decline, especially with China’s rise – and as long as Russia remains aggressive.
The Obama years had already shown that Europe couldn’t afford to entirely outsource its interests to the US, especially when dealing with the turbulence from the Middle East. Trump has made that even more obvious.
There is no clear answer as to whether Europe can “make itself great again”, but Trump has made the question very vivid. “Our values are our strongest survival weapon against enemies,” the Slovak president Andrej Kiska rightly said as Trump was preparing to fly home. And after a tense meeting with Trump in Brussels, the European council president, Donald Tusk, warned: “The greatest task today is the consolidation of the free world around values, not just interests”.
More and more, it’s becoming clear that, for all Trump’s misgivings about the Old Continent, and for all his pro-Brexit and anti-EU rhetoric, reports of Europe’s death may have been greatly exaggerated. As Europe solidifies, Trump’s trip was indeed “a great success” (his tweet said) – only not in the way he reckoned.