The collapse of the Atlantic alliance: Trump’s gift to Europe’s nationalists
By Hamza Ali Shah
Dead and buried. That is the Atlantic alliance under the United States President Donald Trump.
For generations, presidents of the US have heaped praise on the European continent, and their warmest words have been propelled in that direction.
Unassisted, Trump reversed it all. George HW Bush’s promises of collaboration after the Cold War and Barack Obama’s affectionate assurances about binding ties across the Atlantic are all now nothing but distant memories.
With every visit to Europe and every White House tweet about the cost of NATO or EU tariffs, the president makes it clear that he believes Europe is more often an impediment than an ally.
Worryingly for Europe, such tendencies have been more than hollow and provocative words, as tangible action has followed.
Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union has already left the bloc and the continent one overladen with uncertainty, as there is still no lucidity regarding when or how Britain will leave and what effects the exit will have. Thus, Trump’s conduct has not abetted the situation.
Trump kick-started his presidency by abandoning the Paris Climate Agreement, suggesting that the US has no interest in tackling an issue that many Europeans consider of grave importance.
He then made a habit of questioning NATO’s Article 5 guarantee of mutual defence, the central pillar of European security for the past 70 years. The US, he has declared, might not defend European allies that refuse to ‘pay their bills’.
In the summer of 2018, Trump announced tariffs on European aluminium and steel, and threatened similar tariffs on automobile imports, under the illogical pretext of ‘protecting national security’.
In the same year, Trump pulled out of the Iran deal, aimed at curbing Iranian nuclear development, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He had dedicated substantial time chastising the arrangement and suggesting it was too lenient on Iran. As a result, he pulled the plug on the deal that every country in Europe wanted to preserve.
This was the very deal that France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the EU worked tirelessly to assemble, and they even met Trump’s arrangements that he deemed needed to be undertaken for the deal to be ‘fixed’.
Whilst many European capitals share Washington’s Iranian concerns, Trump prefers an approach of aggression, isolation and containment, which very recently had US planes ready to launch missiles on Iran, but for a last minute climb-down.
Meanwhile, Europe seeks to safeguard the nuclear deal, and use a similar model of multilateral diplomacy with Iran to reduce instability in the Middle East. Thus, the issue of Iran can be added to the list of disagreements between Europe and the US.
Now with Boris Johnson occupying 10 Downing Street, an erratic individual with an instinct to favour the US over Europe, experts predict he will abandon Europe’s approach and toe the line of Trump, that of hostility.
This would add to the increasing tension between Britain and Europe and exacerbate the already fracturing relationship, in a move that will charm Trump and concurrently unsettle Europe.
Nevertheless, Trump again demonstrated his lethargy towards the continent when he withdrew US troops from Syria, without consulting his European partners in the fight against ISIS, in a move that will affect European security a lot more than it would US.
Yet bizarrely, the Trump administration almost immediately asked the Europeans to deploy troops to Syria to create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.
Moreover, throughout his presidential campaign, Trump made it clear he did not feel the existing international agreements and alliances served US interests, and thus required dismantling, and he has proceeded to do exactly that.
His classifying of Brexit, the single event that threatens to erode all that which the EU stands for and engender regional instability, as a ‘wake up call’ for the bloc, alongside his embracing of European strongmen that are the continents destructive political forces, sheds light on the type of sentiments he possesses.
By this point, Trump’s disdain for such trans-Atlantic alliances was discernible.
The European idea of foreign policy is rooted in the idea of multilateralism, cooperation, integration and cohesion – values that are alien to Trump, and of stark contrast to his worldview.
It is no wonder that Europeans place more trust in Russia’s Putin or China’s Xi Jinping – two of the world’s most brutal commanders – than Trump, to do the right thing on the global stage.
That is the prevailing attitude in Europe now. It has become clear that Trump’s ‘America First’ unilateral strategy is causing him to act in a way that threatens the multilateral goals that Europe has long championed. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted this in the Munich Security conference in February when she questioned the wisdom of Trump’s US isolationist foreign policy that is leading to political disintegration, and further suggested it was contributing heavily to a world order in danger of decline and destruction.
This accentuates the standpoint Merkel adopted in 2017, when she stipulated Europe can no longer ‘completely depend’ on the UK and the US, especially following the Brexit debacle and the appointment of Donald Trump. She postulated that Europeans had to ‘take their destiny into their own hands’, because as Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington who was the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, stated, US protection ‘is not a certainty anymore’.
That is why Europe is now exploring proposals for a more robust European defence range from a series of Brussels-based initiatives on procurement, training, research and development, from the extension of France’s nuclear umbrella, to the development of a full-blown EU army, as endorsed recently by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
However, they face stern opposition from NATO. Under the guise of avoiding ‘duplication’ and demanding ‘complementary ’capabilities, the U.S. and NATO’s political leaders continue to put up strong resistance to the EU ever developing the command-and-control capabilities that would allow it to operate outside of the alliance’s existing umbrella.
Simultaneously, Michael Rühle, a long time NATO official, affirmed that a purely European defence system would ‘overwhelm the Europeans politically, financially and militarily’.
Therefore, with no scope for a moulded European alliance, Europe remains torn. The US is not particularly in favour of a stalwart relationship with Europe, but simultaneously, Europe cannot break publicly from the US, because it would leave them vulnerable and expose their weakness to rivals like Russia.
Consequently, Europe finds itself in a state of inconclusiveness, and the direction in which it could spiral towards is anybody’s guess. The continent and its political arena currently represent a standstill. Such a landscape leaves the current plight susceptible to change.
This may be the opportunity the left have been waiting for, but ostensibly, they are not capitalising as best as they could.
The latest general election in Sweden captured what was the trend in Europe. The traditional centre left Social Democrats in Sweden slumped to their worst electoral performance in 100 years; meanwhile, the far right Sweden Democrats, who only entered parliament in 2010, came third after garnering 18% of the vote.
The centre-left retreat in Sweden was a syndrome of the wider pattern in Europe. Atomised in France, all but wiped out in the Netherlands and humiliated in Germany, the middle ground ideas that once garnered such robust support are no longer appealing.
The embrace-the-market ‘Third Way’ policies of leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder worked fine in the turn-of-the-century boom years but seem to offer little to today’s vulnerable centre-left voters.
The fallout from the 2008 financial crash – high unemployment, lower living standards, and ongoing public spending cuts – has combined with long-term trends (globalisation, automation, immigration, changing class identities, and declining union membership) to eat into the centre’s core electorates.
Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to be the moderate and new face of the centre that would provide the voice of sense that was allegedly desired. His decidedly pro-Europe campaign which sold ‘a Europe that protects’ was one with appeal and potential. Instead, he continued the trend of uneven wealth distribution, privatisation and launching an assault on workers’ rights. Consequently, he has been met with uncompromising gilet jaunes (yellow vest) protesters in the capital since November, rebelling against him and the system of elitism he has maintained.
As a result, attitudes towards existing system and its bureaucrats have soured. However, where the anti-globalist, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment right wing populists capitalised on the sentiments of the public, the left were sluggish.
Jeremy Corbyn set out to reverse such trends. His Labour Party in the UK is one of the largest progressive political parties in Europe, with more than half a million members.
This is largely because Labour have transitioned towards a core of left wing ideals and promised a major overhaul of the British system that has for decades left a sizeable portion of the population disillusioned, and several states are determined to follow suit.
Rem Korteweg of the prominent Dutch think tank Clingendael, asserted that Corbyn’s model is replicable for those states which have fallen short because of the changing nature of the continent, because the challenges of austerity, unequal wealth distribution, poverty and underfunding of public services, that have overwhelmed Britain, are devastating Europe too.
Thus, a region overloaded with ambivalence and distrust, and largely dismissed by its once robust ally provides the impetus for an overhaul. Britain, specifically Labour under the guidance of Corbyn appeared to have already started it somewhat.
The signs initially seemed promising for the left in Britain, and Europe. Just months before Corbyn’s landslide leadership election in 2015, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the then new rigorous left wing party, Syriza, stormed to power by winning Greece’s national elections. It was the first time in decades a far-left politician was heading a government in Western Europe.
He vowed to wage war against the Greek oligarchy and stand up to EU technocracy. ‘Greece leaves behind catastrophic austerity, it leaves behind fear and authoritarianism, it leaves behind five years of humiliation and anguish,’ he proclaimed to a multitude of supporters following his election victory.
Yet in the subsequent years he did everything but that which he promised as it became clear Europe was not going to be spearheaded by sweeping left wing forces. The very catastrophic austerity he condemned, was in the same bracket as the ruthless austerity measures he then imposed. He portrayed himself as a left-wing revolutionary, but relied on right-wing support for his parliamentary majority. He promised to ignore the demands of the country’s creditors, but assured his compatriots that Greece would stay within the single currency zone. He vowed to do away with the special interests that have long strangled Greece’s public and economic life, but never implemented real reform measures.
As a result, in Greece’s latest elections, less than four years after he took office, Tsipras has been swept aside by New Democracy, the centre-right party that has governed the country for much of the past 40 years, and the force he was supposed to be replacing.
Now even in Britain, Corbyn is seeing his popularity decline. The Brexit question continues to dominate headlines and the sensible middle ground and compromise approach Labour has adopted which seeks to prevent a destructive no-deal Brexit, but honour the result of the referendum, via a Labour deal negotiated with the EU which keeps Britain aligned with the single market and customs union, is decreasing in appeal as stances harden.
Whilst Labour are still comfortably ahead in most polls, there are instances when their poll ratings drop significantly. A recent YouGov poll had Labour crashing down to fourth place with an 18% approval rating. Likewise, a poll by the same company at the end of May suggested the Liberal Democrats would win a general election if it were held in the near future.
Evidently, parties that would otherwise be on the periphery such as the Lib Dems and the newly formed Brexit Party are making noteworthy gains because of their definitive stances on either side of the sharp Brexit divide.
This was reinforced in the European Parliament elections. The aforementioned parties surpassed the Conservative and Labour party and topped the polls. The Brexit Party’s hardline no-deal stance won them 31.6% of the vote, making them the joint-biggest party in the EU. Likewise, the reinvigorated Lib Dem’s won 20.3%, winning 16 seats, as their unyielding remain stance resonated with several voters.
To compound matters, the anti-Semitism saga that has engulfed the party and seems to intensify every summer is also damaging Labour’s reputation. Despite official figures showing that only 0.06% of Labour members fall under the category of anti-Semites, the unrelenting coverage and the hysteria surrounding the alleged degree of racism in the Labour Party is placing the party under unwanted scrutiny.
The racism allegations coupled with the uncanny position the party finds itself in because of Brexit will be deemed unfortunate by Corbyn, considering UK polls indicate there is growing support for the democratic socialist policies Labour wish to implement. In fact, a YouGov poll reflects strong public support for policies such as the renationalisation of the UK’s water and energy companies (57 per cent), higher taxes on the top 5 per cent of earners (68 per cent) and rent caps (74 per cent).
Yet, hurdle after hurdle keeps appearing at crucial points and they are proving to be hindrances to any ascendancy. It is symptomatic of the situation for the left wing factions in Europe that two leaders, Corbyn and Tsipras, who were supposed to be the pioneers for a new Europe with a new direction, have both reached stumbling blocks.
Contrastingly, whereas the left are still struggling to assert their dominance, the European right are already on the way to monopolizing the landscape. There has been a steady yet potent increase in right wing influence in Europe in the last few years.
Right wing nationalistic governments run Hungary, Italy, Austria and Poland. Meanwhile, in France, Finland and the Czech Republic right wing parties all possess sizeable influence.
Just as those on the left of the political spectrum suggest the current model is dysfunctional, the right are in accord. Although, their concerns are centred on the increasing immigration and minority presence and thus disseminate rhetoric from an exclusionary and xenophobic viewpoint.
The chauvinistic ‘America First’ slogan that Trump employed throughout his election campaign, and continues in his presidency, resonates with a plethora of European strongmen. Nationalistic tendencies are becoming prevalent on the right, and that is a prime factor as to why Euroscepticism is flourishing.
The principles the EU stands for are incompatible with the outlook of these ‘alt right’ leaders. Cohesion, integration and immigration are the opposite of what they consider vital.
That is why as well as the continent, the institutions that are integral to it are also under threat from this right-wing surge, and the predicament of the EU is testament to that. The recent EU Parliament elections were predicted to be the start of right wing ‘paralysing’ of the bloc as their influence grew. Whilst it was not a commanding and sweeping victory for them, right wing groups increased their vote share from 21% to 23%, and in the process, expanded their leverage.
This was discernible when the new European Commission Presidency nomination process began. Frans Timmermans, who at the time was the existing Commission vice-President, was the front runner for the position when discussions began.
But those hopes quickly faded. Led by the right wing camps in Poland and Hungary, there was stern resistance to the prospect of a Social Democrat who vowed to uphold the EU’s liberal democratic ethos holding such a prominent position. Whilst it was Germany’s centre-right Ursula von der Leyen who got the role in the end – still to the dismay of those on peripheries of the right – the level of disruption they prompted to prevent a candidate with more socialist tendencies was a sign of their growing strength.
Thus, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that liberalism as an ideological force is ‘obsolete’ and had ‘outlived its purpose’ as well as his endorsement of the growth of national right wing populist movements is pertinent to the current plight.
This apace with the recent revelation that Italy’s far right leader Matteo Salvini, who has always made clear his fondness of Putin, both of whom share the view that Europe requires dismantling, has discussed how to funnel Russian funds into Italy and Europe, suggests that Putin’s rhetoric was not just an ordinary expression, but rather an indication of the objective of the Kremlin.
All in all, a volatile region brimming with vulnerability. It is what the right have historically used to their advantage, and history could well be repeating itself. One thing remains certain. The post war Europe, the status quo, is unlikely to hold out for much longer, and just like most global adjustments in recent times, Trump is the agitator.