BY now, Europeans are used to shocks, both internal and external. There’s been Brexit, the mass arrival of over a million migrants and refugees, sporadic terror attacks and a continuing economic slowdown, not to mention earthquakes in Italy.
But the jury is still out on whether Europe will be able to cope with the “mother of all shocks” in the shape of an election victory for US Republican candidate Donald Trump.
The short answer is no. Most Europeans are rooting for Hillary Clinton and can’t think of anything worse than having to deal with “President Trump”. He’s a populist, a bigot, offensive, outrageous and unpredictable. He’s too close for comfort to Russia. And he’s not sure about the significance of Nato.
The long answer is more complex. While most EU policymakers go pale at the thought of Trump in the White House, others are hoping against hope that he will get the job.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, has said that she would vote for Trump. Nigel Farage, a major figure in the successful campaign for the UK to leave the EU, has appeared on the campaign trail with Trump.
Anti-Islam Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared at a fringe event of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, praising Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration into the United States.
In fact, whether he gets to be president or not, Trump has already been a gift from heaven for Europe’s far right. He’s shown them how to talk the rough talk, to be rude and coarse, to break taboos and to get away with it.
He’s also boosted the credibility of some of the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic who think like him (keep out the Muslims), talk like him and are building the fences and walls that Trump wants to construct.
But it’s the far-right parties in opposition in France, Netherlands and elsewhere who love Trump so much, their leaders even want to look like him: blonde, wild-haired and blue-eyed.
Like Trump, they like to think themselves as “anti-establishment” and “anti-globalisation”. They rant against “Brussels” just like Trump rages against “Washington”.
Much to the delight of the Brexiteers, Trump cheered Britain’s vote to leave the EU. He sees the Union as outdated and said nations needed to take back control over their future.
They share Trump’s dislike — dare I say “hatred” — of Muslims and hark back to the imaginary Utopia of a Christian and white Europe unsullied by outsiders.
Even though elections in France, Netherlands and Germany are some months away, just like Trump, Europe’s populists are giving mainstream candidates a run for their money.
In some ways, they have already won. Instead of countering the toxic populist narrative, many mainstream European political parties are embracing their ideology.
That’s the case for Nicolas Sarkozy, the centre-right French politician who wants to come back as president to replace Francois Hollande. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May sounds like Farage in many of her comments.
However, while Hillary Clinton has spoken openly of her desire to welcome immigrants and Muslims as part of the American story, here in Europe only German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a public stance in favour of tolerance and openness.
The shrill tone of the US election, where fiction and simple slogans count for more than facts, is likely to be reflected in the upcoming polls in Europe.
As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier underlined recently, “hatemonger” Trump and his cronies in Europe prey on people’s fears.
Clinton’s popularity in Europe is no surprise. She was respected as Obama’s Secretary of State. And although there was some concern that her “pivot to Asia” would leave Europe out in the cold, that fear was eased when America continued to engage with the EU on many issues, including climate change.
Trump is feared by the mainstream for his closeness to Russia, his sceptical view of Nato and he has explicitly discussed rapprochement with Russia, a renegotiation of Nato’s budget. Small surprise then that in response some in Europe are now talking of building an EU army.
Significantly, most people in Europe believe that neither Clinton nor Trump is likely to want to complete already difficult negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.
That’s probably just as well given the obstacle course the EU had to run to get approval of the Canadian free trade deal, with last minute objections from Belgium’s Walloon regional government almost scuppering the deal.
The CETA deal with Canada was done at the eleventh hour — but not before that too had sent shock waves across Europe.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, November 5th, 2016