By: Luke Grabowski
Following Trump’s decision to double down on his campaign promise of “making America great again” – via economic isolationism and race-to-the-bottom trade wars- the U.S.-EU partnership reached a new low. Although tit-for-tat tussles with China were expected, Trump has added the European Union to his lengthy list of targets. For months, EU leaders have responded to Trump’s jabs with strong language and threats, but to no avail. The basic problem is that despite their tough talk, European leaders are completely out of touch with the political forces both within (e.g. Poland, Hungary) and without (e.g. U.S) Europe that seek to undermine the union. Continuing down the current path will not only fail to deter Trump, but it may even coax him and European populists to further damage the Eurozone.
During an April meeting, Donald Trump reportedly asked French President Emmanuel Macron why he does not leave the EU, and flirted with the idea of a bilateral trade deal “with better terms than those given to the EU.” Trump’s petty, zero-sum approach to global trade – and off-hand comments like those made to Macron – embolden certain EU member states, who look up to him as a model populist. Following Brexit, vocal right-wing populist leaders have ignored EU orders and threats – in countries most spoiled by and dependent on EU funds. Poland and Hungary’s infrastructure spending is dramatically bolstered by EU money, representing 61 and 55 percent of the total expenditure, respectively. Yet, they have proven the most toxic to a cohesive European Community.
Poland in particular has been the poster-child for post-Communist growth in Eastern Europe. Marcin Piatkowski, Senior Economist at the World Bank, owes its long-term economic performance in part to air-tight integration into the western liberal order, through adherence to the rule of law, competition, institutional development, and market-oriented reforms. Accompanying strong GDP growth is a steady decline in inequality. The EU deserves a chunk of the credit: 9 percent of its budget goes to Poland.
Poland’s success did not detract the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party, masterminded by Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, from embarking on a war against the EU. Poland’s remarkable economic success is poetically mirrored by PiS’s exportable blueprint for how to wreak havoc on long-standing democratic institutions. Kaczyński has increased “state control over the news media and especially the judiciary.” His rampant court reforms include giving the parliament power to select members of the National Council of the Judiciary (the body that appoints judges), and a purge of 40 percent of incumbent Supreme Court justices through a reduction in the retirement age. Kaczyński and PiS have seen through the EU’s largely imaginary big stick; its means to discipline member states are too weak to pose a credible threat to a determined populist government. For instance, populist allies like Kaczyński and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have pledged to defend each other’s interests through the veto power afforded to EU member states.
The staying power and logic of Europe’s populists must be assessed under a scope of a post-truth political landscape and contextualized to account for idiosyncratic nationalist movements. EU heads and pro-Eurozone leaders (Merkel in particular) have opted to do neither. In October of last year, Juho Romakkaniemi, the former head of the cabinet of European Commission vice president, Jyrki Katainen, exemplified the flawed logic still guiding liberal European leaders: “Poland, Hungary and now the Czechs are amongst the biggest net receivers [sic] from EU budget and seem to get more and more critical of the EU.” Despite a potent populist wave having swept Europe in recent years – stretching from France and Denmark to Poland and Hungary – Romakkeniemi and his peers are content to point out how good these countries have it, owing to the generous EU piggy bank.
But as Poland, and to a lesser extent, Hungary, showcase, mainstream economic metrics have a tenuous link with the popularity of populists. The nation-craft pursued by Kaczyński, Orbán, Le Pen, and others is built on complex nationalist narratives embellished with falsehoods, myths, fear-mongering, and dog whistle rhetoric. Economic performance is not interpreted through World Bank infographics, but through a shifting prism that includes refugee, immigration, and trade policy, among many others. The EU – and the greater ‘elite’ in populist narratives – is blamed for anything and everything, while the ethnically native blue-collar worker seizes the mantle of a righteous victim.
The most effective populists in Europe both understand the electorate’s political psyche and are able to craft new worries and fears to alter that psyche. They offer extreme, illiberal solutions to these concerns on a platter in exchange for donations and votes. In France, for instance, Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing populist Rassemblement national (until recently Front national), has demonized the country’s Muslim population and twistedly redeployed the concept of laïcité – constitutional and cultural secularism – to mobilize French natives.
The challenge for the EU is two-fold: (1) coming to terms with the sui generis nature of contemporary populist movements; and (2) figuring out how to sell the idea of a collaborative European Community while avoiding the minefield set up by populist narratives. European leaders must swallow the hard truth: liberal buzz-terms like ‘rule of law’ or ‘democratic values’ no longer suffice.
Retaliating against Trump’s trade tariffs is the right step for the EU and heads of state. For the European project to survive and thrive in the future, however, such moves cannot be made under the guise of the tepid “European solution” and self-centered attempts at institutional preservation. The EU must step away from massaging its own image as an orchestrator of democracy and address the rag-tag economic policies pushed by nationalists for emotional ends. Rather than jumping head-first into the fire of the refugee debate or flooding feeds with liberal buzzwords, the EU should make example of Brexit’s enormous costs – already greater than its EU budget payments – and provide insight into the negative long-term consequences for British workers. Instead of patronizing Poland and other major EU beneficiaries, it should market Trump’s isolationist trade war as a cautionary tale for what might happen when free trade is thrown out the window.
The EU, the US Democratic party, and countless moderate neoliberal parties across Europe have shown time and time again that they falter in the political war for voters’ hearts. Although facts are not as effective as they used to be, they may very well save the institution from demise. After all, many Republicans, who have otherwise stood by and watched Trump dismantle US influence on the international stage, deeply oppose his trade policies. By shifting its focus and retaining composure, the EU can tap into multipartisan, non-populist constituencies to regain legitimacy around pressing political and economic issues.
Otherwise, run-of-the-mill comments like those made by Romakkeniemi will only strengthen the nation-craft capacity of populist leaders in Europe, and feed into Trump’s destructive rhetoric. A united Europe may be at stake.