by Judah Grunstein

January 18, 2017

from WPR Website

Google's cache PDF Format



Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column, Balance of Power, appears every Wednesday.





French President Francois Hollande

and German Chancellor Angela Merkel,

Berlin, Germany, Nov. 18, 2016

(AP photo by Markus Schreiber).




Just when it seemed like the European Union's troubles couldn't get any worse, Donald Trump seemed to rub salt in its wounds last week.


In a joint interview with German newspaper Bild and The Times of London, he lauded Brexit, disparaged German Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door refugee policy, and derided the EU as a "vehicle" for German economic domination.

Trump clearly would shed no tears were the union to collapse on his watch. But could he instead end up being the EU's savior?

Trump's most recent comments follow reported assurances given by the Trump transition team to British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that the U.S. would quickly put a generous bilateral free trade deal on the table to strengthen London's hand in negotiating the terms of Brexit with the EU.


After meeting with Johnson in Washington, Sen. Robert Corker, once floated as a potential Trump secretary of state nominee, publicly declared that such a deal would be a high priority in Washington.

According to Josh Green of Bloomberg, this is all part of a plan hatched by Trump adviser Steve Bannon to break up the EU by offering similar bilateral deals to each of the union's weak-link member states until the edifice comes crashing down.


Trump's interview suggests that Green's reporting is more reality than conspiracy theory.

Among Europeans, it's not uncommon to hear the EU's troubles blamed on Washington's meddling. To hear them tell it, the U.S., hell-bent on undermining the EU for fear that it might develop into a geopolitical rival and threat, plays its various members against each other to keep the union divided and ineffective.

Of course, Europe has never needed America's help to remain divided and ineffective.


But there has always been an "American primacy" contingent in Washington that viewed the EU with skepticism, disdaining Brussels' claims to global leadership not through the hard power of military might, but through the soft power of trade, norms and values.


Some even advocated treating the EU as a rival and threat.

Trump's plan is their vision on steroids.


But true to form, instead of seeing the EU as a political whole that is greater than the sum of its economic parts, he sees it through a distinctly mercantilist lens:

Its sole purpose is to serve as a force-magnifier for German industry,

"formed, partially, to beat the United States on trade," as he put it.


The EU

is the geopolitical equivalent

of Obamacare:

People love everything it does,

they just hate the name.



To be fair, the same criticism has been leveled by Europeans, particularly in Athens and elsewhere in Southern Europe at the height of the Greek debt crisis.


And Trump is hardly the first to criticize Merkel's refugee policy, whether in Germany or Europe.

But will his plan backfire? In voicing his views so explicitly, Trump actually puts flesh on the bones of what has long been a straw man in Europe, namely the American conspiracy to undermine the EU.


Far from a baseless rumor, Trump not only clearly wants to undermine the EU, he has cheered Brexit as the opening act of its demise. And that could generate the kind of European solidarity that has been in short supply in recent years and could tip the balance in the EU's favor moving forward.


After all, its one thing to talk about tearing your own house down, but quite another for a perfect stranger to call in the wrecking ball while you're still living in it.

The shock of the Brexit referendum combined with Trump's election raised fears of similar upsets in upcoming national elections in the Netherlands and France.


Far-right Europhobic parties have been gaining traction in both countries, and their victory would raise the risk of a chain reaction of core founding member states beating a path to the exit.

Those scenarios are still a long shot in both countries, however.


And while a Pew Global Poll from before Brexit in June 2016 suggested a rise in unfavorable views of the EU in some key member states such as France, a majority still had a favorable view in the Netherlands and Germany.


Moreover, according to the latest Eurobarometer poll from November, although only 35 percent of respondents had an overall positive image of the EU, that still beat out those with an overall negative view of the union, at 25 percent; 38 percent were neutral.


Another interesting insight from the poll had to do with trust:

While only 36 percent trusted the European Parliament, fewer still - 32 percent and 31 percent - trusted their national parliaments and national governments, respectively.

Perhaps the most astonishing results pertain to particular EU policies, where support grew since last spring and now ranges from strong to overwhelming majorities on every issue polled, including,

  • the free movement of EU citizens

  • common EU foreign

  • security and energy policies

  • the common currency,

...with one exception:

further enlargement of the union.

In other words, the EU is the geopolitical equivalent of Obamacare:

People love everything it does, they just hate the name.

That suggests that the EU might prove more durable than its doubters and skeptics believe.


According to Trump, "it's going to be very hard to keep it together cause people are angry about it," but that's contradicted by the Eurobarometer polling, which showed that, overall, a majority of respondents were optimistic about the EU's future.


This is in part because in many respects the EU has succeeded on its core mission: maintaining peace among its members through the establishment of deep and binding economic, political and cultural links.


Not surprisingly, these are also identified in the Eurobarometer poll as the EU's most positive achievements.

But many of the EU's flaws, and especially the ones that help make it unpopular outside of Brussels, are simply due to the fact that it is a one-stop clearinghouse for all the bureaucratic codification of rules, regulations and norms that facilitate trade. And its worst failures are on issues that no single member state could successfully manage on its own.


As I wrote back in October, for all the EU's political errors - and they are legion - if it did not exist, it would have to be invented.

While the goal of ever-closer union has lost favor - the Pew poll found 42 percent in favor of devolving powers back to national governments, versus only 19 percent in favor of transferring more powers to the EU - the union itself has not.


And with British Prime Minister Theresa May's government now committed to negotiating a clean break from the EU, the most destabilizing potential blow for Brussels may very well be behind it.

A lot is still riding on the Dutch and French elections, but Trump just might have tipped his hand too early. If what Europe needed all these years was for someone to kick sand in its face, he has effectively done so.


That won't make all of the familiar obstacles to developing common EU policies on defense, energy and migration - to name just a few - magically disappear, but it could create the political will to more effectively address them.

It's possible Trump is misguided enough to think that dismantling the EU could benefit the U.S.


But by broadcasting his project, he has made the need for a strong Europe an easier sell than it's been in ages.