A Punch in Europe’s Stomach

Will this be the punch in the stomach that will help Europe out of its autism? To find the will to exist as a protagonist rather than stumbling along in blessed indifference, guilty of indolence and methodical inaction in a new world which is crumbling down all around it? It has to be, given that the 45th president of the United States offers Europe no alternative choices or loopholes; he simply turns the page and announces a new world order where America comes first: “Strong again, wealthy again, proud again, safe again.” A patriotic America, protectionist, revanchist and less generous to the rest of the world.

Europe has been warned. Donald Trump means business. He will almost certainly be the healthy external shock that will force Europe to react against its quiet life and its frequent beating about the bush; to assess the situation, regroup and rebuild itself on new structures, new rules and new treaties. After all, even before entering the White House, the new president arranged to overthrow traditionally held views and concepts, such as the post-war certainties and pillars which the European Union has been used to for decades, convinced wrongly of their eternity.

Of course, this American turnaround hits Europe at the worst possible time, in the midst of an important election year which will see France and Germany, Europe’s heavyweights, at the polls, along with Holland and perhaps even Italy. The year 2017 thus promises to be a lost year: it’s too risky to make decisions on a European scale with a European Union which is losing popular support, where democracies and traditional parties appear destabilized; where nationalist movements, euro-skeptics and the anti-establishment movement have the wind at their back.

A game of standstill for another 10-12 months, however, risks Europe being presented with a huge bill. Will it be worth it? If Trump achieves only half of the promises to make America great again, the new president will upset the world balance and Europe will only be able to stand still and look on at its own risk.

Moreover, Trump has publicly identified every limit and weakness of Europe. In fact, Trump has become the blaring voice of Europe’s bad conscience. He has put Europe on the spot in front of itself and the world, Europe now appearing even more fragile and no longer even legitimate. The United States is historically Europe’s ally and main economic partner (and vice versa); together they make up 50 percent of the global gross domestic product and one-third of international trade. Today, however, the U.S. is also Europe’s biggest critic.

Of course, to cut such ties of interdependence costs everyone, but unless Europe manages to disprove him quickly with the facts, Trump could be tempted to justify himself by saying that Europe is a useless and ineffective entity, a liability rather than a precious alter-ego, as it once used to be.

As much as his take on the EU is somewhat hit and miss, it sheds light on the union’s troubles along with its nightmares. It’s not enough for him to bless Brexit and offer London a free trade treaty strengthening its position in the negotiations over the EU divorce — even if such an agreement is impossible as long as the British remain in the union. Trump goes on to evoke future desertions, thus further stirring the troubled waters of division and the centrifugal forces in Europe, and the increasing difficulties of internal integration and coexistence: from the weak recovery of the euro, to the migration crisis, terrorism, security and defense. All while the external image of Europe becomes increasingly uncertain and difficult — from the Middle East to Africa, to Eastern Europe, with Moldova which now repudiates the agreement with the EU, opting for Russia, and Ukraine which teeters feeling betrayed.

When he speaks of Europe at Germany’s service, Trump is being provocative, but is speaking merely half-truths, touching another raw nerve of the “club;” To continue to exist, it must be strengthened and reformed as soon as possible, but it can’t because it’s wary of itself, of its members (too many?), of German hegemony and its weaker counterparts.

If Trump says that NATO is obsolete, he’s exaggerating, but he forces Europe to do what until now it has never wanted to do — assume more responsibility and financial burden for defense in a world, including its own, which is increasingly unstable, chaotic and insecure. And when he appears to flirt with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, threatening stewardship of the historic antagonist, it whips up European vulnerability, which rests on a choice of cynical and even ideological laziness, not of obliged political-strategic impotence. Singing the praises of protectionism, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword, which ultimately harms those who use it.

It’s too soon to rush to conclusions, taking for granted that on this basis, the transatlantic relationship is doomed to fail. However, one thing is certain: To withstand the cyclone that is Trump, Europe must make itself great again, in many ways, using his own language. Will it be able to?

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