U.S. & Europe

Transatlantic tensions

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Protesters in London during the Women’s March on January 21. Nearly 100,000 people are thought to have joined the London leg of the worldwide march, making it the largest outside the U.S. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) with British Prime Minister Theresa May during a European Union summit on February 3 in Valletta, Malta. Theresa May has attempted to position herself as a sort of negotiator or bridge between the U.S. and Europe. Photo: MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP

The public opposition to Trump has entered the formal political world too. European states are cautious in their response to the new U.S. administration.

On a cold January evening, just days after United States President Donald Trump instituted his travel ban on nationals of seven mainly Muslim nations and temporarily suspended the nation’s refugee programme, some 2,000 people gathered in the northern English city of Newcastle to protest. “Newcastle stands with millions of refugees,” said one of the organisers over a megaphone as a huge crowd gathered in the city centre with placards such as “No Ban, No Wall”, “No to Trump, No to War” and “The vast majority of people in the U.K. completely reject these policies and the values they represent.” The size of the protest, highlighting the depth of feeling across the United Kingdom, surprised many, including its organisers. A huge protest attracted tens of thousands in central London that evening, while marches took place in other U.K. cities, too.

“People are very concerned about the way the world is heading and have joined the movement against racism to start to make their voice heard,” said Daniel Kebede, the co-chair of Newcastle Unite, an anti-racism, anti-campaign group responsible for organising the protest. Further protests are planned later in February, to coincide with a parliamentary debate on Trump’s state visit on February 20. A parliamentary petition against Trump’s planned state visit to the U.K. later this year well surpassed the number of signatures required to trigger a parliamentary debate: over 1.8 million people had signed it by early February. “There is a huge detachment about this between [Theresa] May and the general public,” said Kebede. (A separate petition supporting the state visit has attracted just over 30,000 signatures.)

Even before the announcement that Trump had been invited to the U.K. on a state visit, a particularly high-profile type of invitation that would involve meeting Queen Elizabeth and is not accorded to all visiting leaders, the strong protest movement against him had begun in the U.K. Nearly 100,000 people are thought to have joined the London leg of the worldwide Women’s March on January 21, making it the largest outside the U.S. The size of the protest, which is larger than any that had taken place against Brexit, left many pro-European campaigners wondering what it was that spurred this level of interest, with pro-European Union social media groups debating the issue. There is certainly an overlap in opposition to Trump and being anti-Brexit.

A recent study by The Economist newspaper of those who had signed the parliamentary petition and voting tendencies in last June’s referendum found that “places that didn’t like Brexit don’t like Trump”, with the highest number of signatories in Remain households. “We are standing up to war, we are standing up to racism: these are things that people can easily unite on—and it doesn’t matter how they voted in the E.U. referendum. Things are becoming so perverse that people now feel they need to do something,” said Kebede.

The public opposition to Trump has entered the formal political world too: Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders have called on the invitation for the state visit to be rescinded until the travel ban is revoked. On the Monday after the ban was introduced, MPs held an emergency debate and unanimously passed a motion condemning the ban and the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees, describing it as “discriminatory, divisive, and counterproductive”. On February 6, the Conservative speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, astonished many with his clear criticism of the “racism and sexism” of the Trump administration and his opposition to Trump addressing parliamentarians in Westminster Palace. Parliament’s stance has contrasted with that of Theresa May, who, though condemning the ban, has insisted that the U.S. remains Britain’s “most important ally” and has defended Trump as the “democratically elected head of state for our most important ally”.

Still, criticism has kept up and has linked in with the debate on Brexit: while Britain’s partnership with U.S. Presidents is nothing new (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair and George W. Bush are among the prominent and recent ones), it appears that Theresa May seems willing to go to far greater lengths to quickly woo Trump as the U.K. seeks to forge free trade agreements outside the E.U. Senior figures have pointed out that no President before Trump has been accorded the honour of a state visit so soon into his presidency before his politics became clear.

“I understand the need for a trade deal with the United States, but we cannot on the basis of our eagerness to get a trade deal shrink from speaking truths to the most powerful man in the world,” said former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband during the emergency parliamentary debate.

Trump and anti-E.U. sentiments

The U.S. presidency has not done particular favours for Theresa May’s partnership with continental Europe either despite her protestations that she is in favour of a united Europe. Even before being elected, Trump was a big supporter of movements to split with the E.U., frequently describing himself as “Mr Brexit” and sharing a platform with the U.K. Independence Party’s Nigel Farage during his electoral campaign. His anti-E.U. sentiments have shown no signs of waning since November. During Theresa May’s visit to Washington, D.C., he described the E.U. as a “consortium”, and he has taken a swipe at constituent nations, particularly Germany. Recently, Peter Navarro, who heads the U.S. National Trade Council, told Financial Times that Germany was gaining an unfair advantage from a “grossly undervalued” euro that exploited both the U.S. and other E.U. states.

Breitbart News, the controversial website of which Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is chair, had expressed its intention to set up German and French versions in January, although neither had been launched at the time of writing.

E.U. institutions had initially been cautious in their response to the new U.S. administration, issuing cautious welcomes to the new U.S. President. “We should consolidate the bridges we have been building across the Atlantic. Europeans trust that America will continue to invest in its partnership with friends and allies, to help make our citizens and other people of the world more secure and more prosperous,” wrote Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, in a letter to Trump shortly after he was elected. The council invited Trump to attend an E.U.-U.S. summit. Leaders of individual member states were equally measured in their initial response, with only German Chancellor Angela Merkel making her welcome contingent on shared values.

The attitude has changed swiftly as Trump’s antipathy to the E.U. shows little sign of easing; Guy Verhofstadt, the E.U. parliament’s chief negotiator on Brexit, told a recent meeting at Chatham House that the U.S. presidency was one of the three forces undermining the E.U. along with radicalised Islam, others being the Russian government and the Far Right in Europe.

“Every European that I met [on a recent visit to the U.S.] had only one conclusion: the E.U. has far fewer friends than ever in the United States,” he said, adding that Bannon had begun preparing the ground in Paris and Berlin to support referendums on leaving the E.U. And while no official meeting has yet taken place between the French National Front’s presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Trump, she was seen at Trump Towers in January. In November, Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a relative of Marine Le Pen, and also a member of the National Front, tweeted that she accepted an invitation from Bannon to work together. Trump’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. is Ted Malloch, a businessman who had drawn parallels between the E.U. and the Soviet Union, a move that has provoked great anger in Europe.

In late January, in a letter to 27 member states (excluding the U.K.), Tusk warned that the new U.S. administration called into question “the last 70 years of American foreign policy”.

Bridge between U.S. and Europe

Theresa May has attempted to position herself as a sort of negotiator or bridge between the U.S. and Europe. She has rested her hopes in particular on commitments she received from Trump during her visit to the U.S. on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Trump’s pre-election comments, which questioned his commitment to the alliance, threatened to upend a fundamental part of the E.U.’s post-Second World War security regime. Her hopes of gaining a bargaining chip with E.U. leaders on this count shows little sign of succeeding so far: during a press conference following an E.U. conference in Malta in early February, Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were lukewarm while talking about the potential role that Theresa May could take as an intermediary.

Europe’s concerns with Trump’s foreign policy go well beyond NATO and the unity of the E.U.; in a paper for the German Marshall Fund published shortly before Trump took office, senior fellow Hans Kundnani wrote that Trump’s positive stance on Russia—and against sanctions—threatened to wreck the “fragile” European consensus on those sanctions, noting that while nations such as Germany were firm on the need for them, others such as Greece and Italy had expressed scepticism.

Upcoming elections across Europe could pose a further challenge to European unity across those fronts: predictions that Marine Le Pen would be knocked out in the second round of the French presidential election look less certain with the Republican Party’s Francois Fillon’s involvement in a controversy regarding payments to his wife. Her campaign commitments, launched in early February, bore a striking similarity to those of Trump, many relating to immigration controls and protectionist import duties—and, of course, a referendum on France’s E.U. membership.

At the same time, Trump’s opposition may offer opportunities to E.U. leaders to heal fractured relationships. At the recent Malta conference, Juncker spoke of the urgency of the need to establish unity across the group, while others such as Verhofstadt have spoken of the need to strengthen Europe’s own defences, beyond the U.S. “defence umbrella”. Writing for the political website, Politico, two directors at the European Council of Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard and Vessela Therneva, argue that the U.S. and its “ally” in the Kremlin could “provide the push Europe needs to finally resolve its biggest crises”, as the threat of populism is faced in three major elections, in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

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