U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have several things in common, all of which undermine the unity and values of the European Union.
Despite that, Europe’s leaders—particularly in Brussels—are woefully unprepared to galvanize the EU. Politicians seem more distracted by elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany and petty institutional turf wars than understanding how they must take the bloc’s security, defense, and values seriously.
The American and Russian presidents, for different reasons, oppose the EU, NATO, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and open societies.
Their views chime with some European politicians. From Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, to the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom, leaders of conservative or nationalist parties espouse the policies of closed borders and a conservatism that opposes societies built on openness, particularly for those who need protection.
And if these political leaders are not profoundly eurosceptic, they are convinced that the EU in its current state has exhausted the post-1945 liberal agenda—which is not far from Trump’s own philosophy.
Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, for example, frequently boasts about how the European project, if not already “stopped in its tracks”, must be stopped. This is despite the fact that his country has profited handsomely from EU structural and development funds. They amount to some 3.1% percent of Hungary’s annual gross domestic product.
For Trump, the EU prevents its member states from controlling their own destiny. When Britain voted to leave the bloc, Trump transition officials quipped which country would be next to quit an organization that the United States had helped to establish after 1945.
For Putin, the EU has untapped potential because of what it represents in addition to its economic wealth. These are threats for Russia. And at times EU unity can surprise. That was clear when the union pulled together, as it has done since 2014, when all member states agreed to impose sanctions on Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of parts of Eastern Ukraine.
As for NATO, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently held talks with Trump in Washington, had to work hard to convince Trump about the necessity and value of NATO. Trump regards the military alliance as “obsolete.”
Putin could not have wished for a better ally in Washington, particularly as NATO is taking the defense of Poland and its other East European members much more seriously by deploying several thousand troops there.
Putin’s goal has always been to split the transatlantic alliance and weaken the EU. Now Trump is doing Moscow favors as the U.S. president challenges the very foundations of the Western liberal and security order.
Furthermore, if there is one European leader that Trump and Putin have targeted negatively, it is Merkel. Trump has already criticized the EU “basically as a vehicle for Germany.” He has also lambasted Merkel’s refugee policy, calling it a “catastrophic mistake.” It is as if Trump is taking revenge for the special relationship that former U.S. president Obama forged with Merkel.
For Putin, Merkel is his biggest impediment in the EU to getting sanctions lifted. While several EU leaders, led by Orbán, have repeatedly opposed the sanctions, Merkel has kept the EU united on this policy. She has received strong support from May, who told Trump in no uncertain terms that the sanctions should remain in place.
As for Trump’s executive order issued on January 27 to suspend the country’s refugee program and suspend all immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, it has provoked widespread criticism in Berlin, London, Paris, and Brussels.
But don’t be surprised if Trump’s decision will be welcomed by some European political leaders. Hungary has already announced to build another fence along its southern border, adding to the one it built last year to keep out refugees entering the country from Serbia.
Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic have consistently refused to accept refugees from Syria and Iraq, even on a temporary basis. They may even feel vindicated by Trump’s decision.
More than that, Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s nationalist-conservative Law and Justice party, as well as other populist leaders across Europe may feel they have an ally in Trump, who challenges the values that have underpinned the West since the end of World War.
In doing so, they may be tempted to cut bilateral deals with Washington, whether related to security or trade.
NATO should waste no time in disabusing them of this idea. As for the leaders of the EU institutions, they have no agenda over how to deal with Trumpism or (apart from sanctions) Putinism. That vacuum is rich pickings for Trump’s and Putin’s European supporters.