This article is written together with Cristian Rosu, a Romanian media expert who works for Kirchhoff Consult Romania, a corporation for Public Relations and Communications. Cristian has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Bucharest. More articles and social media analyses by Cristian can be found on his blog.
The unexpected Mr. Trump
While there are significant difference between the political systems of Europe and the US, some similarities and political symptoms do cross the Atlantic westward, where US voters may react in some form of contamination. Trump’s victory in the November 8th elections seems to have taken the European chancelleries by surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have.
The political trends in several European countries were already pointing towards the disruption of the establishment. In 2015, the Greeks elected Alexis Tsipras as their prime minister: a charismatic but off-main-stream leader, with strong leftist views who took little time to begin a disruptive set of actions. In Hungary, the prime minister Viktor Orban is one of the Eastern Europe’s leaders with the most vocal Eurosceptic views, also expressing pro-Russian views in spite of Hungary’s NATO membership. In Central Europe, Poland’s political leaders express the same level of Euroscepticism as Hungary, and perhaps stronger. Under the presidency of Andrzej Duda, Poland is pushing back against the idea that EU decisions made in Brussels should be automatically accepted in Warsaw. In particular, Poland, just as Hungary, unilaterally refuses to accept the refugee quotas imposed by the EU.
Two major events in 2016 should have provided a stronger warning that the disruptive current against established order and against existing political structures has widened and gained strength. On June 23 2016, the voters in the UK decided 52% to 48% in favor of leaving the European Union, an outcome known as the Brexit. The voter turnout was 71.8% with more than 30 million people voting. This decision leaves the US without an important ally within the EU structure. The second event is murkier, both in terms of the known details as well as the implications: on 15th of July 2016, a coup d’état was attempted in Turkey against state institutions, including, but not limited to the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The coup failed and it was followed by vigorous purging of the military by Erdogan, as well as other significant outcomes: the coup has shaken the structure of the NATO alliance of which Turkey is a crucial member, and it has distanced Ankara from Washington with an apparent realignment towards Moscow, at least to some extent, as Erdogan and Putin are currently displaying a warm relationship.
In the meantime, anti-establishment currents have been growing in strength in Germany, France and Austria. In Germany, the large influx of Middle Eastern immigrants allowed into the country by the Merkel’s government has led to a significant decrease of support for Merkel among the German voters. The Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist and Eurosceptic political party in Germany had gained representation in 10 of the 16 German state parliaments as of September 2016. In Austria, the presidential candidate of the right wing Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, won the first round of the presidential election of 2016, receiving 35.1%, and was only narrowly defeated by Green Party’s candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, in the run-off. The election was contested however, and a re-run will be held on December 4th, with poll results too close to call a prediction. In France, the National Front party, a right wing nationalist party led by Marine Le Pen is growing in popularity. Marine Le Pen would lead the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, according to various polls. As of 2015, the National Front has established itself as one of the largest political forces in France.
The trends and events described indicate that in Europe, the politically correct legacy of the establishment is being vigorously contested due to the harsh realities of economic austerity, refugee crisis and attempts at diminishing the national identity. There is a common theme across Europe where the citizens find more alignment of their personal interests and worries with extremist parties than with the established parties. The Brexit is viewed a movement of protectionism and anti-immigration in the UK, despite the discrediting descriptions given in the media about the true awareness of the UK voters, or lack thereof, towards the real effects of their decision.
In the same measure, these trends should have been examined from the point of view of their diffusion across the Atlantic. After 8 years of the Obama administration which enjoyed popularity in Europe but was perceived as weak in foreign affairs, after Russia’s moves in Ukraine and the Middle East and the creation and fast growth of ISIS, these changed trends should have pointed the analysts towards the possibility that the US voters would elect a president anti-establishment, a person with a direct manner, more aware of the harsh economic reality of unemployment rather than an embracer of ethnic diversity, a candidate with a stronger hand in foreign affairs and immigration. Donald Trump presented himself as such a candidate and won.
The administrations in Paris and Berlin have received the news of Trumps election victory with great concern. The European Establishment’s concerns are many: what will be the new US administration’s approach to the European’s defense and NATO, given Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the issue, and how will the new administration deal with immigration, given the aggressive Trump’s statements during the campaign, and his departure from the accepted political correctness. What would be the implications of the unknown yet US policy on immigration, given the EU refugee crisis, and the rise of nationalism and extremism?
The President Elect Trump is viewed in some European circles as a counter-revolutionary leader against the EU policy of “unity in diversity”. From this point of view, after several years during which an African American US president has been by far the most representative symbol of accepted diversity all over the world, after the acceptance and legalization of the same sex marriage in many European countries, and after the decision by Germany and to a lesser extent by France to accept a large number of Middle Eastern refugees, suddenly the new White House resident speaks forcefully of deportations, of renegotiation of economic agreements, of warmer relations with Russia, and selects for his future cabinets personalities with known extremist views.
The EU’s own daemons + Russia
The economic crisis has strongly impacted the EU, although at different level of severity for different countries. While Germany has remained the uncontested locomotive of economics for the old continent, the so called PIIGS group of countries, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, were strongly affected. Among them, Greece has been in a continuous and extended dire condition with no clear solution in sight, while Italy’s banks are seen as a strong liability for the Europe’s financial system. Following the Brexit, several other countries contemplated the exit idea, among them Italy. This situation has led some political analysts to the conclusion that the EU could dissolve, either partially or completely.
The agreement reached by 28 European countries with Turkey on March 18th, to slow down the flow of refugees into Europe is now uncertain in terms of its execution due to various legal issues, but mostly due to complications related to the Turkey coup.
To all this, Trump’s victory and his statements regarding NATO have fallen like a hammer on the heads of states in the EU.
Currently, France and Germany are the uncontested leaders of the European Union. While the EU Parliament in Brussels is officially the EU legislative body, the management of the economic crisis in EU is executed by decisions made mostly in Berlin and Paris, with the participation of the European Central Bank. In the meantime, however, both Germany and France are confronted with important domestic issues.
Parliamentary elections are due in Germany no later than October 22 2017. The popularity of Angela Merkel is currently at a historical minimum, with contesting actions even from her own party, the Christian Democratic Union. The refugee crisis and the various terrorist attacks, executed or attempted in Germany are problems hanging heavily on the ratings of Merkel’s government. In particular, after large scale incidents of rape and attacks against women by refugees reported to the police around Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Germany, the weak official reaction was perceived as a cover up meant to suppress the expected popular rejection of more inflow of refugees, and maintain Merkel’s decision to bring in more. German foreign affairs have become more complex due to the complications in the relations with the US related to the Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank scandals. These two latest developments are adding to the strain generated by the revelations in 2015 that the NSA had been tapping the German Chancellery. Adding to the complexities, Trump’s victory, and his statements related to the requirement that all NATO member states should increase their defense spending to a minimum of 2% of their GDP place Germany in a difficult position politically. This conjecture opens and increases the chances of the extremist and anti-establishment parties for the upcoming German parliamentary elections in 2017. In this context, it has become very difficult for Germany to manage both its internal and the overall EU crises.
France is in even more complex and difficult state. Although powerful from the military standpoint, with a very advanced industry and technology, the country is affected by 10% unemployment rate overall and between 24% to 26% youth unemployment rate. The youth unemployment is closely correlated with the presence in France of minorities from early waves of immigrants coming from the former French colonies. To that social layer is added the new wave of recent immigrant refugees, a situation that strains, cumulatively, the French social system. Shaken by the chain of terrorist attacks in the last two years, the country is heading towards the presidential elections of 2017. After the US election results were announced, both the French prime minister Manuel Valls and the president Fancois Hollande expressed their deep concerns regarding the ripple effects in France. Current president, Francois Hollande is fairing very low in polls, and another 4 years at the Elysee Palace is just a nice dream. The primaries of the French conservative parties were won by Fancois Fillon, considered a “has been” political figure but with a recent strong showing in polls. Trump’s victory in the US may diminish the chances for such an establishment gentleman. On the rightmost end of the French political spectrum, Marine Le Pen was one of the first European leaders to congratulate Trump. Given Trump’s statements regarding Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the good relationship between Marine Le Pen and the Russian leader, the potential trend generated by Trump’s victory will cause many sleepless nights in Paris.
This conjecture generates great expectations at the Kremlin. For Russia, the objective of a rapprochement with the US is the lifting of economic sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea which have severely affected the Russian economy. In addition, the significant drop in the price of commodities and especially the drop in the price of oil due to the production gluts and excessive pumping by the OPEC members generate a significant squeeze of the Russian budgets. Besides the lifting of sanctions, Putin will want Trump to recognize Russia’s ownership of Crimea – something no major state has done thus far. Putin also feels that Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence over the former republics of the Soviet Union, and Eastern and Central Europe. Moscow is pushing an ideology of “civilisational spheres” and “pluri-centricism” – code for Russia being a dominant world force on equal terms with the US. Just as with Crimea, Putin would like to revisit history: a new version of the 1945 Yalta treaty, when the US and Britain left the countries of Eastern Europe at Stalin’s mercy. Perhaps Putin would settle for a deal where Trump implicitly acknowledges that Russia has “legitimate interests” in its former backyard. Trump has already questioned the role of NATO and said that the US will not defend countries that fail to contribute to NATO coffers. The vague potential that the new Trump administration may negotiate with Putin on these issues is generating fever chills in many European capital cities.
And in fact, the current situation in Eastern Europe appears favorable to the Russian objectives.
Ukraine’s political movement that generated the break-away from its close relationship with Moscow now appears to lose momentum, with issues such as government corruption stalling progress, while the civil war in the East continues.
In Serbia, the government led by Tomislav_Nikolić maintains close ties with Russia. Serbia is one of Kremlin’s most reliable political links, not because of any Slavic-Orthodox fraternity, but as a consequence of political calculation and propaganda disseminated through the local media, Internet, and social networks pounding on historical solidarity, the pernicious West and defense of traditional values.
In Hungary, the Prime Minister Viktor Orban has clear pro-Russian views as mentioned already here. Moscow is doubly influential in the country by informally partnering with Orban and, at the same time, bankrolling the extremist Jobbik party, a xenophobic group to the right of Orban’s Fidesz party. Through these maneuvers, Moscow has two allies in the country: one in the opposition, and one in power. “Fidesz and Jobbik are crucial in channeling and implementing Russian interests,” argues Daniel Hegedus, a Hungarian analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank. As a member of the EU and NATO, Hungary “is able to influence the political agenda and decision-making processes of these bodies.” In particular, Hungary is notably vocal in warning the EU against renewing the sanctions in place against Russia.
The recent election in the Republic of Moldova, former Soviet Republic and a former territory of Romania occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, designated Igor Dodon as winner. While the result is contested and thousands of citizens in the Moldavian diaspora claim they had been unable to vote, the result of the election is not likely to change. Dodon is a strong pro-Russian leader and is expected to propel Moldova on close Russian orbits.
A similar election result came in Bulgaria, population 7 million, and a member of both NATO and the European Union. It elected Rumen Radev as president, leading to the resignation of its prime minister, Boyko Borisov, and prompting parliamentary elections for the spring. During communist times, Bulgaria was the closest Eastern European member of both the Soviet Union’s military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, and COMECON, its economic union, prior to the breakup of the USSR. Radev is another new Eastern European leader with strong pro-Russian views.
In opposition to these trends, Romania and the Baltic States are the countries in Eastern Europe which, together with Poland in Central Europe, still maintain a strong desire to distance themselves from Russia.
The Baltics: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. They are the countries where NATO membership and US protection is most critical. However, campaign statements by Donald Trump that NATO states must pay more for defense, his ambivalence about Crimea, and allusions to how America may not defend members against Russian military action generate strong concern for the local governments. As Bloomberg reported recently: “over the past month, Russian TV channels widely watched in the Baltics filled airtime with apocalyptic rhetoric about world war. Russia recently made a show of moving short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into its militarized Baltic exclave, Kaliningrad, wedged between Lithuania, Poland, and the Baltic Sea. And a recent military exercise near the Latvian border involved Russian servicemen using loudspeakers to call on NATO soldiers to surrender. The Baltics, with a combined population of 6.1 million (Russia has 142.4 million), have responded by raising defense expenditures and training their military–and general population–in guerrilla warfare. During the last days of October, Latvia staged a major military exercise involving 3,000 troops from the U.S. and other NATO countries, as well as a nationwide civil defense drill”.
Romania, also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union finds itself in a geopolitical conjecture where it is surrounded by pro-Russian interests. At the present, the local political landscape is stable, and the country will hold parliamentary elections on December 11th. But underneath the calm, there are daemons as well. The elections and the related campaigns are held against a background where the fight against government corruption is the main theme, besides the concern and suspicion regarding potential Russian overt or clandestine manouvers. The political parties which are considered in the lead by various polls, the Social Democrat (PSD) and the Liberal (PNL) parties are also considered to carry controversial legacies. Recently, under pressure from the EU, the country’s Military Justice Court (Parchetul Militar) has re-opened for the 4th time the investigation of the events of December 1989. However, for the first time in 27 years, the official statements of the Court referred to the events as an organized action against the state, essentially a coup, and not a revolution. Unofficially, it is generally accepted in Romania that the coup was organized by the then Soviet secret services, the KGB and the GRU, with some degree of approval from the West and the US, following the Malta secret talks between the US president G.H. Bush and general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. The implications, relative to the current elections, are related to the legacy of the Social Democrat Party, which has its roots in the December 1989 National Salvation Front, considered today to have been founded by the coup leaders. Ion Iliescu, who is considered the leader of the coup of 1989 and who served twice as president of Romania from 1989 to 1996 and 2000 to 2004 is an honor member of the PSD, but no longer influential in the decisions of the party, after the new party leadership has formally condemned communism, and specifically condemned the decisions made by Iliescu in the early ’90’s when coal miners were brought to Bucharest to violently squash street demonstrations against him. A good fraction of the current PSD is looking westward and attempts at reforming from within: the formal entrance of Romania into the NATO membership was officially signed under the PSD watch, 85% of the current candidates are newcomers to the party while party rhetoric is very much in line with Western values of multi-culture, political and economic liberalism and reform. The National Liberal party also includes members considered as having been part of the 1989 coup legacy. During the recent mayoral race for Bucharest, the Liberal party was noted for a series of political gaffes, among which promoting and then quickly withdrawing several candidates in a short period of time. A third party is also challenging the two established organizations mentioned above: the Save Romania Union (USR) is a political party founded in 2016, extending an initial organization – the Save Bucharest Union – which unsuccessfully ran candidates for the mayoral race in the country’s capital, Bucharest – to national level. The party leader, Nicusor Dan is considered an outsider and perhaps inexperienced, but the party’s candidates run campaigns on a radical anti-corruption platform that is attractive to the young voters and to the large diaspora which considers USR as the only viable option for the country. Militarily, Romania has a special status within NATO and in direct relations with the US: both Poland and Romania are hosting on their territories the military installations of the US/NATO anti-missile shield. The United States sees the $ 800 million missile shield as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states but the Kremlin says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear arsenal, and expresses strong irritation about the installations. Consequently, Russia’s moving Iskander missiles into the Kaliningrad region is viewed as a response, in part, to the missile shield installations in Romania and Poland. In Romania, the missile shield installations are seen as a special guarantee extended by the US and NATO to Romania, an interpretation which generates special confidence in the US direction of its foreign relations with respect to the region, regardless of the electoral rhetoric in the US.
This short review clearly shows that Trump’s victory finds the EU in a complex and difficult situation. Until now, the US military guarantees extended through NATO, doubled by NATO’s Turkey control of the maritime access by Russian Navy to the Mediterranean through the Turkish straights have been the main defense directions for the EU against Russia. The “European Army” is still only a concept, while the military forces of Germany and France, considered individually, are no match against the Russian military. The EU states have not been allocating significant budgets to their military, after decades of American protection. In addition, Russia has demonstrated in Ukraine a special ability to carry a new type of hybrid war for which the EU has neither efficient counter measures nor adequate tactics.
Donald Trump’s statements regarding a reduced US role within NATO and towards normalizing the relations with Moscow will generates uncertainty in the EU. It is also expected that the future Trump administration will have priorities other than the EU: China, the Middle East, and internal US economy. DEBKA website already reports that Trump’s team is planning, in close contact with Russian and Turkish governments, significant military operations in the Middle East, to be initiated immediately after Trump’s inauguration.
The EU leaders are therefore expected to operate in catch-up mode in reaction to the expected and unexpected decisions of the future Trump administration. This complicates the EU political dynamics in a way that may lead to significant changes in the EU political spectrum and parliamentary representation, with a potential disruption of the establishment.
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