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WHAT lessons should Europe draw from Donald Trump’s election victory? For those Europeans who believe in American exceptionalism, there may be little to learn. America’s circus-like primaries and gladiatorial presidential contests find few echoes in Europe, and Mr Trump, in all his preening, soufflé-haired glory, is surely a sui generis American
phenomenon. Moreover, the electoral college is a peculiar institution. Hillary Clinton seems to have won the popular vote, after all.
But for most European politicians the shock of the American election was compounded by the obvious parallels for their own democracies. Worried leaders tempered their letters of congratulation to Mr Trump with veiled reminders of the transatlantic values many of them believe his victory imperils. Meanwhile Europe’s army of little Trumps, from France to Italy to Hungary, took their own lessons from the result, showering laudatory missives upon the president-elect that had little to do with America and everything to do with the messengers’ own projects of political disruption: if it can happen there, why not here? The “aloof and sleazy establishment is being punished by voters step-by-step,” said Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in his Facebook salute to Mr Trump.
Europe’s ears have been ringing with wake-up calls for years. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each disaster is different in its own way: the euro crisis set creditor against debtor and tore at the notion of solidarity; Brexit showed that the European Union could shrink as well as grow. After so many traumas in recent years plenty of Europeans were at least braced for this one, even if a Trump presidency is hardly the sort of eventuality one can plan for. Its effects on the EU could, in time, prove profound.
The ascent to the White House of Mr Trump, an admirer of Vladimir Putin who hints that he may abandon America’s NATO allies, poses urgent questions for Europe’s security order. Weakening America’s commitment to NATO could undermine the guarantee of peace that has allowed the EU to pursue its project of integration. But if Mr Trump’s capriciousness makes the geopolitical effects of his presidency hard to predict, the hit to Europe’s self-confidence, already sagging after a string of crises, will be immediate. For the EU is rapidly losing faith in its ability to defend the liberal ideals that Mr Trump’s victory repudiates. So badly has the mood soured that minor successes are now held up as political marvels: Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, heralded a recent trade deal with Canada as a triumph for Western democracy, after last-minute talks barely saved it from death at the hands of a restive regional parliament in Belgium.
But if Mr Trump’s win is a threat to the EU, it will arrive first via the tribunes of national politics. Mr Strache and his ilk will take heart from the poll-defying victory of a man who shares their distaste for elites and their devotion to nation-first tub-thumping. They may even reap electoral rewards, although a short-term flight to political safety is another possibility: support for EU membership has shot up in most countries since Britain voted to leave in June. An early test will come with Austria’s presidential run-off on December 4th, when the FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer squares off against a candidate backed by the Greens.
Yet even outside government the populists can tug other politicians in their direction. By forcing centrists to tack towards the fringe, Mr Trump’s victory may strengthen the trend towards Euroscepticism in countries like France and the Netherlands, both of which hold elections next year. (In Germany Angela Merkel, mercifully, is likely to show more backbone.) That in turn could gum up the workings of the EU, where compromises are essential to oiling a complex piece of machinery with 28 moving parts. Inside the EU the alternative to fudge is not frictionless decision-making, but gridlock and inertia. Eurocrats in Brussels often complain that they are made the scapegoats for the failings of national politicians. They should brace for more of it.
No appetite for destruction
For now, Mr Trump’s win will merely deepen pro-Europeans’ commitment to maintaining unity at all costs. Since Britain’s referendum the remaining governments have been working on lowest-common-denominator projects like an EU border guard and military co-operation to show that they are still capable of getting things done. (Optimists hold that such efforts might actually be boosted by fears of a withdrawal of the American security umbrella.) Similarly, Mr Trump’s win will if anything strengthen Europeans’ resolve to take a tough line in the Brexit talks so that their own populists are not further emboldened.
But there will be casualties, too. First among them will surely be the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed EU-US deal that was already floundering in the face of opposition in Europe and differences between the two sides. The trade-bashing Mr Trump is hardly going to ride to its rescue; if it dies, or (more likely) enters deep-freeze, so do Europe’s hopes of directing global trade standards. Mr Trump has vowed to withdraw from the climate deal agreed last year in Paris, championed by the EU as a triumph of multilateral diplomacy. Forget about transatlantic co-operation on resettling Syrian refugees.
Yet the deeper fear for many Europeans is that their own long journey of integration is finally running out of steam. The EU is not on the verge of falling apart, Brexit notwithstanding. But Mr Trump’s success shows the potential power of the backlash against the liberal norms the club is supposed to embody, from trade to migration to human rights. If it is replicated in Europe, the EU may eventually tilt towards a common assembly for mutually beneficial transactions rather than a club of like-minded countries with a sense of shared destiny. The tremors from America’s political earthquake were felt across the continent this week. But Europe’s edifice was already tottering.
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