Legend has it that the European Union thrives on crisis and shows its true colours — its strength and resilience — when life gets tough. Not this time.
As predicted in this column two weeks ago, Donald Trump’s election victory has dealt the EU a body blow. All 28 EU governments — and yes the EU still has 28 members until Britain actually goes out the door at a yet-undecided date — are still reeling from the surprise election result.
To be fair, the bloc has a lot on his hands. Brexit and the refugee crisis continue to weigh heavy. Relations with Russia and Turkey are at an all-time low. And populists, both in government and in opposition, stalk the land.
And now, their bedrock, the “transatlantic relationship” looks like it is in tatters.
As they bade a teary-eyed farewell to President Barack Obama last week, EU leaders had much to worry about.
First, Trump is certainly unlikely to be a pro-European president. He does not like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), is sceptical of Nato and if Moscow is to be believed has promised to normalise relations with Russia.
Second, all this would be manageable if EU countries were able to put aside their differences and forge a united stance vis-a-vis Washington.
Alas. Hopes of a united front to deal with Trump have been dashed. A hastily scheduled working dinner of EU foreign ministers called by the German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier and EU special representative for foreign and security policy Federica Mogherini last week was boycotted by Britain and France.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who once said he was afraid of running into Trump while in the US, decided he was tired of the EU’s “whinge-orama” over Trump’s election victory. France said it had urgent business to attend to at home.
Some EU officials like Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have warned that Trump must get up to speed on how Europe works in order to avoid “two years of wasted time” when he assumes his new role.
“Mr Trump, during his campaign, said that Belgium was a village somewhere in Europe,” Juncker said in his frank remarks to students in Luxembourg, adding: “We must teach the president-elect what Europe is and how it works.”
Juncker said that Trump had called Nato into question, which could have “harmful consequences” because it is the model of Europe’s defence.
The US president-elect had also “taken a view of refugees and non-white Americans that does not reflect European convictions and feelings”, he added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lectured Trump on “shared values” and hinted relations depended on the future American president’s respect for “democracy, freedom, respect for the right and dignity of every individual, irrespective of origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation or political attitude”.
No surprise then that Obama’s farewell visit to several EU countries, including Germany, last week turned into a long and painful goodbye.
Emotions were running specially high in Berlin where Obama and Merkel praised each other as “outstanding partners”, with the US president expressing hopes that Trump would stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin when he deviates from US “values and international norms”.
In a joint op-ed, Obama and Merkel defended aid for refugees “because we know it is our treatment of those most vulnerable that determines the true strength of our values”. They hailed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — from which Trump has threatened to pull back — as a cornerstone of peace.
Still, even Merkel knows it’s time to move on. As the de facto leader of the EU, the German chancellor has a lot on her plate. The next few months are going to be extremely difficult for Berlin and Brussels.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has vowed to resign if he loses a referendum on constitutional reform on December 4, saying the “decrepit system” that would be left in the wake of his defeat would have to be taken care of by someone else.
Meanwhile in Austria, far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer and former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen will run again on Dec 4 after Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the results of May’s presidential vote and called for a rerun.
The court said the May election, in which Van der Bellen narrowly beat Hofer, would have to be repeated after the discovery of irregularities in vote counting across several districts.
Although the presidency is a largely symbolic role in Austria, the Freedom Party’s potential success would herald a major victory for Europe’s far right parties ahead of elections next year in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
The fear in Europe is that far-right populists Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen will give mainstream parties a run for their month in both the Netherlands and France.
Ominously, Breitbart, the so-called alt-right news organisation that is often described as “misogynist, racist and xenophobic”, is reportedly planning to expand to Europe ahead of the crucial elections next year.
Breitbart is believed to have been instrumental in helping Trump win the elections. Steve Bannon, executive chairman of the organisation, has been appointed senior counsellor and chief strategist for Trump.
Meanwhile, Aaron Banks, the millionaire who helped fund the Brexit campaign in the UK, has also promised to take his campaign to France ahead of the elections.
Members of “Populist International” are moving fast to gain votes while EU leaders wring their hands in despair.