Opinion and Politics

Europe After Trump Day: Going Forward

1990 at Bornholmer Straße, opening of the Berlin Wall. Use permitted: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1118-018 / Roeske, Robert / CC-BY-SA.

20.01.2017 BERLIN.

Where does Trump’s inauguration leave us in Europe? Turning points in history are usually distinguished well after the fact, in academic settings. It is still possible that Trump’s inflammatory election rhetoric will have been much worse than what he does in office. Alternatively, we may face a nightmare scenario, with future readers asking: it was all spelled out, you saw it coming, and what did you do?

For Western Europe, America––its protector, or occupier, during the Cold War––inspired a mix of admiration and envy (for its wealth, ingenuity, civil protections, and the glamour of its media) and a sense of superiority (because of America’s racism, rampant capitalism, poverty and inequalities, and religious extremism). But what recent political life in Europe has shown, in times of economic crisis, is that Europe shares all these same characteristics. It is, like America, deeply divided between two camps. Perhaps that is why Europeans have been less judgemental than usual, I’ve observed, of recent American political life, because they understand that their citizens may well make similar mistakes at the ballot box. Certainly, they did so in the UK with Brexit.

Trump provides a set of coordinates for understanding the conflicts within European democracies today. That struggle is between social democracy and what Michael Ignatieff has called ‘authoritarian capitalism‘. Now that America has succumbed to the latter––and voted in a leader whose lack of expertise, and temperamental and capricious decision-making style (if we can call it that), keeps the world hostage to uncertainty––Europe can no longer rely on America as a democratic anchor.

Europe is then faced with the choice, or rather a question about its capability. Can it assert itself as a democratic bastion: as a socially democratic, welcoming place, with open borders, at peace with its neighbours? Or will it fall into pieces, plagued by nationalism and resurgent right-wing populism that threatens to destroy the achievements of the post-war peace?

Trump represents what happens when the open spirit of the former is defeated by the demagoguery of the latter. That this should happen democratically does not legitimise or ‘normalise’ the situation, and we have already lost half the battle if we consider what has happened in America as business as usual. It is much too easy to make a comparison to the rise of the Nazis, but one instructive lesson is that they rose to power democratically, and they used faults in democracy to destroy it. (Meanwhile, I am still amazed that even many left-leaning newspapers have no trouble describing Marine Le Pen’s Front National as a ‘far-right, extremist, party’, but the Republicans, in their Trump incarnation, are somehow called mainstream).

The post-WW2 settlement in Europe––with its introduction of universal health care programs and worker benefits––was intended to cushion the vulnerable from fears about their existence. But those guarantees (that worked against political extremism) have been dangerously undermined in neo-liberal States where the threadbare safety net leaves impoverished citizens grasping for simplistic explanations. The economic crisis in Europe has fanned fears, but a global electronic media has made fear and inflammatory news its everyday bread and butter. Opportunistic politicians have only benefited.

It doesn’t strike many as very sexy to go out onto the streets for social democracy. But this was what people did in past centuries––under monarchies, autocracies, and in the former East––when they had no democracy. That it is possible for us to fight for a united Europe is clear by how fervently voters, for example, in France have embraced the pro-EU candidature of Emmanuel Macron (it is perhaps too early to judge his true stripes, but the centrist pro-European swell of support for his campaign is encouraging). One saw this optimism already in America with the grassroots support of Bernie Sanders. And it is encouraging that many of these supporters are young, and that in Europe they demand even more from the EU than the corporate and democratically-deficient order it currently offers them.

We should then not feel hopeless in the face of rising authoritarian capitalism. We should instead be encouraged that social democracy––with constitutional social guarantees––is a cause for which it is worth fighting. I think many people realise that they value what they take for granted, in light of the abysmal nationalist alternative that has already gripped countries like Poland, Hungary, and, yes, the UK. It’s important that those who care about social justice harness this grass-roots mobilisation, instead of allowing its potential to fall into the hands of those with more dangerous agendas.

That a united Europe is worth fighting for is easily illustrated with a nightmare scenario, of how Europe may well be tested in the coming months (or years). What if Russia were to intervene in the Baltic States? Such an intervention is unlikely to take the form of an all-out invasion, but will likely resemble something akin to what happened in Eastern Ukraine, with Russian fomenting local civil unrest, and then moving in to ‘protect’ sizeable Russian minorities. What would Europe do in this situation? The Baltics are NATO members, and Trump questions America’s support for NATO. Without American guarantees, Russia could easily test the efficacy of Article 5, which promises collective defence. If the guarantor of European security proves unwilling to act, the emperor has no clothes. Meanwhile, the Baltics use the Euro. If they are thrown into civil unrest, expect another wild ride of Euro-crisis.

Putin would have moved forward in two goals: the delegitimising of NATO and the breakdown in Europe’s political union and economic community. Trump says that the European Union is irrelevant. It risks being so if it does not get its act together to provide a bulwark against more powerful neighbours. The European Union has the economy of the United States, but it is a military dwarf. Europe needs cohesion and ––let’s face it––military strength for deterrence.

Unfortunately, I think Europe will be tested sooner rather than later in the Baltics. It is time for Europeans to decide for more rather than less Europe, and to move beyond their little national vanities. Europe will have to do so, unless it wants to be a collection of bit players poised between the two unpredictable superpowers of Trump and Putin. The big question: will external pressure seal the European project together, or break it apart? With today’s inauguration, Trump leaves Europe in uncertainty, but only as long as it does not make its own decisions.

The coming elections in France and Germany––although challenged by the far-right, especially in France––look generally optimistic (Le Pen statistically should lose the second round), but the US election and Brexit should make us wary of polls and warn us not to be complacent. Europe has long depended on America for its example of democratic life. The question is whether it can be Europe’s turn to set an example for America. And whether all of us, living here in Europe, regardless of our origins, can make that happen.

Time to get creative, everyone.

by Dr. Joseph PEARSON


Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer and historian based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. His second book, My Grandfather's Knife, was published by HarperCollins and the History Press in 2022. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

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