As the Trump administration amplifies its attacks on the European Union and its collective identity, we would do well to recall the lessons of the 1930s.
‘Don’t worry’, an eminent American commentator reassured the annual meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations last summer: ‘even if he did make it to the White House, he’s more Berlusconi than Mussolini’. If only. All the early signs are that President Trump is not going to be content to enjoy the trappings of power, enrich himself further, and generally have a good time. Rather, he plans to do what he told his supporters he would. Seriously – and literally.
So what about that Mussolini reference? Liberal journalists, aghast at Trump’s first ten days in office, are now beginning to evoke 1930s Europe. And the parallels are unescapable. Then and now, ‘big men’ with a complete disregard for the truth have tapped into a widespread sense of grievance – a popular conviction of having been done down by foreign powers, betrayed by corrupt elites and suckered by false friends. They have fomented a demand for national renewal based on a return to patriotism and ‘traditional’ values, rejection of multiculturalism and aggressive action to protect against saboteurs and enemies of the people, notably minority ethnic or religious groups. They have claimed an exclusive right to represent ‘the will of the people’, and have encouraged their supporters to turn on anyone seen to oppose it, whether in the media or the judiciary.
It can be debated whether all this qualifies Trump and those around him for the term ‘fascist’. Of more importance is to recall the lesson of those inter-war years in Europe: that there is zero room for complacency; that the hostility of the insurgents towards established systems and values should not be underestimated just because it seems so excessive, misplaced, even self-defeating; that what they say should not be dismissed as hyperbole; and, above all, that it is never too early to take a stand and push back.
So when Trump, in his interview with Bild and the London Times, asserts that ‘the EU was formed, partially, to beat the United States in trade’; congratulates the British on leaving; and forecasts that others will follow, it would be folly to dismiss this as random musing. Just because we have become used to a succession of US presidents who believed in the West as a community of institutions and values, it would be fatal to assume the same of Trump. On the contrary, the Trump world-view is clearly that institutions and values are the threads of constraint that cunning Lilliputians have cast over the United States to hold it down. Trump likes his international relationships bilateral; just you and me, behind the bicycle shed. His hostility towards a Union that aggregates nation states into an economic bloc more powerful than the United States, and which has written liberal values into its founding treaties, is palpable.
Equally, we should pay attention when he describes the same Union as basically ‘a vehicle for Germany’; and when, between repeated assertions of ‘respect’ for Chancellor Merkel, he reiterates that her decision to admit Syrian refugees to Germany was a ‘catastrophic mistake’, and brackets her with Vladimir Putin as a leader on probation. It is not by chance that he compares the prevalence of Mercedes cars in New York with the dearth of Chevrolets in Germany; and looks forward to slapping a 35% border tariff on BMWs coming out of the new plant in Mexico. These observations are calculated, just like the buttressing claims by his new trade czar Peter Navarro that Germany has engineered an undervaluation of the euro by which it “continues to exploit other countries in the EU as well as the US”.
For what Trump understands intuitively – he is big on the importance of intuitive negotiating skills – is the art of the bully. Take down the ring-leader, and the rest of the opposition will fold. Some of them, will even enjoy the spectacle, since schadenfreude is not a German monopoly and discomfort with German ‘hegemony’ is an ever-present risk in Europe. Trump’s strategy is already clear: to isolate and damage Germany, as a means to diminish and preferably break up the European Union. No wonder he finds Nigel Farage such a congenial counsellor.
On the face of it, this might look like rather a long shot. After all, the EU operates its trade policy collectively. So if the new US administration starts to play fast and loose with WTO rules in order to block German imports, it is the EU Commission that will consider retaliatory measures on behalf of the EU as a whole. But the Member States will still have the final say: and if a transatlantic trade war is in the making, there will be European national capitals that will be both receptive to Trump’s anti-German messaging, and tempted to open private lines to Washington in the hope of keeping their own economies out of the line of fire. So it is not just Trump’s Scottish parentage which accounts for his enthusiasm for a bilateral trade deal with the UK; he is using Britain’s need as a way to signal to other Europeans “come to me bilaterally, and I’ll see you right”.
Often in international affairs, the right response can be difficult to identify. Not this time. Anyone who believes in what Europeans have built since the horrors of the mid-20th century has a clear line to follow. Concede not an inch. Allow no ‘benefit of the doubt’. React promptly and vigorously to every new excess. Protest vociferously at the very idea of a Trump state visit to Britain. In the 1930s, Europeans forgot the warning of Edmund Burke: "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing". We really should not make the same mistake again. And, as the attack on Germany’s ‘unfair’ trading practices intensifies and the prospect of a transatlantic trade war looms, EU Member States should recall that if they do not retain their internal solidarity as a trading bloc then the skids will really be under their Union.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.