Commentary: Europe’s leaders struggle over a Trump strategy

“We have to understand, that we Europeans must fight for our own future and destiny,” said Angela Merkel. This was the German chancellor speaking to a crowd of supporters in May, after a testy few days of a G7 summit that included reports in German news media that Donald Trump had called her country “very bad” for selling so many cars to the United States - and which saw the U.S. president emerge as the only G7 dissenter on combating climate change.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Sicily, May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

If her comments were colored with dislike for her fellow leader - she has had a strained, occasionally insulting relationship with Trump from their first meeting in March - Merkel was also attempting to turn a bad transatlantic relationship into a win for Europe. It’s a new situation for Europe’s politicians. As the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, notes: “Trump is the first American president since the EU was created not to be in favor of deeper European integration.” Merkel’s subtext now is that the Union must come together not with the support of the U.S., but because of its hostility.

She is backed by Emmanuel Macron, the French president who famously took on Trump in the awkward, too-long handshake stakes. As Le Monde wrote, Macron may have “stolen the American president's monopoly on being unpredictable…. [but he] wants to become the European leader of the international political scene. To achieve this, he'll have to go beyond images and symbols.” That means Macron must, like Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, agree to differ on central issues but smile sweetly in public at the White House occupant.

Does Trump have support in Europe? He does, and it’s a sign of the divisions within Europe that the support is potentially quite substantial. Some of that is accidental. When, in February, Trump tweeted that Sweden was the victim of a terror attack, fruit (in his view) of its over-enthusiastic acceptance of tens of thousands of migrants, he was widely derided because there had been no such attack. But shortly after, there was. Swedes, including recent immigrants, began to speak out about running battles between young migrants and the police; Prime Minister Stefan Löfven admitted that “we have challenges, no doubt about that.”  

The events have buoyed the far-right Swedish Democrats, who have now overtaken the center-right Moderate Party as the country’s second-largest political group and convinced its leaders that they should consider some cooperation with the anti-immigration Democrats.

Support for Trump is possible elsewhere, too. Italy, the one major country in the EU where the general economic upturn hasn’t happened, is also seeing a spike in the popularity of the far right as record numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa come ashore on Italian beaches.

The Italian right, encouraged by the weakening of the center-left government, now looks healthier than it has for five years, with the apparently immortal Silvio Berlusconi (81 next month), still head of the Forza Italia party, among those gaining ground.  

At the same time, the populist Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo, though suffering defeats in local polls in June, is still polling around 30 percent, slightly ahead of the Democratic Party. It too is taking a strong line against immigrants, and is increasingly Euroskeptic. Were the right to successfully coalesce its various fragmented groups, it could take over the government after a general election expected next year.

It could also show a welcoming face to the Trump presidency. The U.S. president has long been compared to Berlusconi – both as one who came to politics from business, proclaiming commercial success as a qualification for high political office, and as one whose media experience (and in Berlusconi’s case ownership) allowed him to speak directly to mass audiences.

Among those European governments which are already squarely in the Trump camp, Poland is the leader. Trump’s speech in Warsaw last month was rapturously received by the ruling Law and Justice Party - not surprisingly, since Trump heaped praise on a state and a government without making any reference to its plans for a virtual takeover of the Polish judiciary. Trump’s own State Department later criticized Warsaw’s move.     

Viktor Orban, prime minister of the equally autocratically-governed Hungary, also welcomed Trump’s election. Orban sees him as a fellow Euroskeptic, ready to support strong borders and a block on immigration.

Britain, in the throes of working through the deeply contested Brexit process, now stands to one side of the European Union even as it remains a full member. If Brexit goes ahead - as the government of Prime Minister Theresa May promises it will - the UK will be greatly dependent on the U.S. for a trade deal to compensate for the loss of privileged access to the EU single market.

Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary who charged Trump with “quite stupefying ignorance,” has exchanged pre-election scorn for post-election flattery, while Trump, lauding the “special relationship” between the two countries, has brought great relief to an anxious British cabinet by promising to make a “very big, very powerful” (and very quick) trade deal with the UK.

Europe has no single face to show America. It is divided on issues such as free trade, climate change and NATO. But on others, such as immigration, strong borders, gay and transgender rights, the right is usually in substantial agreement.

While Macron and Merkel, the continent’s two most powerful leaders, oppose Trump on most things, they need to retain cordial relations with Washington, not least for defense reasons. The two leaders of the EU see in each other an ally for tuning up the sputtering motors of the Union – in the economy, in political heft and in standing in the world. But they have many skeptics and opponents within Europe itself, most of who get Trump’s active or passive support. This will be a struggle at once profound and delicate – one which will have large consequences on both sides of the Atlantic for many years to come.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.