Europe after Trump

| January 17, 2021

With few exceptions, decision makers and opinion formers in Europe viewed the Trump presidency with increasing apprehension and disquiet. Their concern became alarm when the president refused to accept his election defeat and incited a violent attack on democracy.

Alarm turned to disbelief when some 150 Republican members of Congress voted in support of Trump’s fraudulent claim that the election was “stolen” by the Democrats in a fraud backed by “communists.” Opinion polls suggest 40 percent of Americans still believe Trump’s lies, despite any evidence of election malpractice.

The uprising was condemned by President Emmanuel Macron of France and a host of other leaders as an intolerable threat to democracy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that the fact that Vice President Mike Pence and the Electoral College leaders had returned to Congress late at night to confirm Joe Biden’s victory was a cause for hope.

Joseph Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, spoke for all 27 members when he said the assault on Capitol Hill showed how “damaged and divided American society is” after years of the Trump administration. It must be a wake-up call for democracy.

The European Union already has a host of problems to confront in the roaring 20s: its failure to come to grips with the COVID-19 epidemic, the unprecedented surge in illegal immigration, bickering over the €750 billion European recovery fund, action on climate change, the regulation of the vast world of social media, and the ongoing issue of the imbalance between richer northern members and the struggling south.

The future of democracy itself is now added to this formidable list of challenges. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are examples of political leaders gaining power democratically, only to become increasingly autocratic, enacting legislation to consolidate power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin swapped jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to allow him to return to the presidency for a second term, becoming increasingly repressive ever since. Brazil, Venezuela, Uganda, and Hungary offer similar examples of autocracy.

One of President-elect Joe Biden’s foreign affairs election promises is to host an international conference of democratic states in 2021, in effort to demonstrate that America is back as a natural leader of the democratic world. Most Europeans celebrate Biden’s victory, but believe such an event should be held in Europe or Southeast Asia and that, first, the United States president must demonstrate his control of Congress and Trump’s wayward supporters.

Europeans know that they are heavily dependent on the US for security, with NATO the bulwark against an encroaching Russia and an economically powerful China. They took seriously Trump’s threats to reduce or withdraw support from NATO.

Europe’s leaders are also braced for disagreement with Biden on how, when, and why social media should be brought under stronger regulatory control. In Europe, as in Australia, there is broad press freedom, subject only to laws of defamation, national security, and social behaviour.

In the US, press freedom is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, although also constrained by defamation laws. Most publications and broadcasters work to codes of conduct but, until recently, owners of social media, particularly the big barons of Silicon Valley, claimed to be platforms, not media organisations. These “platforms” did little to interrogate content produced.

This laxity allowed Facebook, Twitter, and others to carry items that range from factual inaccuracy to outright racism. When he became president, Trump continued to be a regular Twitter user, and his messages ranged from the downright misleading to outrageous lies.

Facebook and Twitter have now taken his account down, leading to heated debate about whether billionaires in Silicon Valley have the right to do so, and whether there should there be rules administered by a judicial body. Germany’s Merkel favours the latter.

The view from across the Atlantic is mixed. Some favour no regulation, and others self-regulation. It’s difficult to see how these views can be reconciled. The European Commission is working on proposals, but the matter will not be settled quickly.

The EU faces other significant uncertainties. Germany goes to the polls in September this year, bringing to an end Merkel’s 50 years in politics, and her 16 unbroken years as federal chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union.

As for Merkel’s replacement, a number of dark horses have been canvassed, but the field is still open. Whoever is chosen, it seems certain the Christian Democrats will win and that Germans will vote for continued stability.

The same cannot be said for the outcome of the upcoming election in France, where Emmanuel Macron needs to improve his ratings (currently bumping along at about 40 percent) if he is to secure a second term in 2022. Michel Barnier, the EU’s successful former chief Brexit negotiator, has fuelled speculation he may stand against Macron by stating he is “available and mobilized” to serve France.

As well, although it has been a mere two weeks since the United Kingdom parted company with the EU, Brexit has vanished from European headlines and the EU agenda. Brussels has more important issues to worry about, not least the new trans-Atlantic relationship.

The 27 members are well satisfied with the trade deal won by Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. Across the Channel in London, Boris Johnson claims to have “won back control” and fulfilled his 2016 referendum promises. The outcome is rather different.

The deal, finally concluded on Christmas Eve after multiple missed deadlines, provides for zero tariffs and quotas on traded goods between the EU and the UK. This does not apply to services, which have been the mainstay of the British economy for many years. The EU has a big surplus in manufactured goods exports to the UK, particularly in the automotive and machinery sectors. BMW, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz can continue to export vehicles to Britain free of the tariff.

On the other hand, the EU has a substantial deficit with the UK on services, particularly in finance and banking. To reduce this deficit, it is seeking to put up blocks against UK financial services, weakening London’s position as a preeminent financial centre.

Since January 1, the city of London has been losing business valued at £6.5 billion a day, as the London stock exchange can no longer trade European equities or bonds. British media and Prime Minister Johnson focused on the minor issue of fishing rights in the final Brexit negotiations, but neither paid much attention to London’s big earner.

David Milliband, UK Foreign Secretary in the Blair government who now heads the International Rescue Committee, says Britain is definitely the loser from the Brexit deal. He assesses Britain is now almost wholly “preoccupied with the home front,” though still facing substantial work in rebuilding relationships with its closest neighbours, let alone restoring a global presence.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.