Can Trump’s Anti-EU Rhetoric Unite Europe?

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, sees a silver lining

While US President Donald Trump’s predictions that other member states, besides the United Kingdom, will desert the European Union (EU) are unhelpful, they serve as a wake-up call for the EU to set its house in order, according to a senior European official.

Trump, who has described himself as “Mr. Brexit,” has repeatedly praised the UK’s decision to leave the EU. He has also said that he believes other member states will head for the exits.

“We always assumed America would be there for us, no matter what. Not with Donald Trump it isn’t. For the first time in history there is a US president who is rooting for the breakup of the European Union,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist.

But, he added, “the way Trump looks at the EU is an opportunity for the EU to get its act together.”

In Verhofstadt’s book, Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union, he makes the point that the EU is doomed to failure unless its member states integrate further. The message is an important one for Europe at a time when populist forces are on the rise.

Trump has rattled the United States’ European allies by describing NATO as “obsolete” and raising questions about whether the United States would come to the defense of its NATO allies who have not met their financial obligations to the bloc.

Verhofstadt noted that Trump is not the first US leader to express frustration with the United States’ allies. Former US President Barack Obama had described as “free riders” European members of NATO that do not meet the agreed upon goal to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense.

Verhofstadt, who is a former prime minister of Belgium, sees a silver lining in such criticism. He was hopeful that “Trump’s hostile attitude toward NATO will push us” to reform European institutions.

“In every crisis there is an opportunity. We have to see such a challenge as an opportunity,” he said.

Verhofstadt said European leaders should seize this opportunity to convince the American people and the American political establishment as to why they need a more united, more integrated, and federal European Union.

Besides the fact that the United States and the European Union have shared values and beliefs, “a weak and divided Europe is a huge liability, a huge risk for the United States of America,” he said.

“Trump should want the opposite of what he is proclaiming. He should want a strong European economy without internal borders. He should want a united European army,” he added.

Europe, much like the United States, is seeing a rise of populism and hybrid threats in the form of fake news and cyberattacks that have been traced back to Russia.

Verhofstadt recommended common intelligence and investigation capacities at the European level. “It simply doesn’t suffice to ‘coordinate more’ as the member states in the European Council always say. When faced with cyberattacks, but also terrorists who know no borders, coordination is not enough, [it] will be always too little, too late,” he said.

“Just as the Americans build up their FBI and CIA—after being faced with terrorist attacks in the beginning of the 20th century—Europeans need federal agencies that are able to investigate and set up security operations. That is the only way to fight cyberattacks in a serious way,” he added.

Europe, Verhofstadt noted, is overwhelmed by other challenges, including a migrant crisis of historic proportions fueled by wars in the Middle East and North Africa, terrorism, and a lingering financial crisis in its southern states that has been compounded by a slow response.

Yet, he countered Trump’s predictions of an exodus of member states from the EU noting that since the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016, polls have actually shown a decline in interest among other EU member states to leave the Union.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will meet Trump at the White House on January 27, has said that her government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty—which governs the exit of member states from the European Union—by the end of March.

The UK’s supreme court ruled on January 23 that Parliament must vote on whether the government can start the Brexit process. The government is expected to get the necessary enabling legislation through Parliament in time for its March 31 deadline.

The European Parliament must approve any deal struck between the European Union and the British government.

Verhofstadt said Brexit provides an opportunity to reform the European Union and make Europe stronger. “Let’s use the Brexit as an opportunity to give the Union the powers and instruments to really tackle the refugee crisis, the economic crisis, our geopolitical weakness, and so on,” he said. 

The UK, meanwhile, is eager to have a free-trade agreement with the United States—its largest trading partner.

Trump’s protectionists statements on trade have caused alarm among some of the United States’ friends and allies around the world, including in Europe. Verhofstadt contended that there is “enormous fear” about Trump’s position on free trade.

The president has taken the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement with other Pacific Rim countries, but has said little, if anything, about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreement between the United States and the EU.

Verhofstadt made the case for the preservation of TTIP. For both the EU and the United States, TTIP would be an “enormous asset” for writing the rules of global trade—an ability the United States ceded to China when it pulled out of TPP, he said.

Trump was elected on his pledge to “make America great again.” Verhofstadt was struck by Trump’s inauguration address in which he vowed to rebuild the United States. “I kept on thinking: what needs to be rebuilt? America came out of the crisis stronger than ever. Obama did a great job in rebuilding America after the crisis,” he said.

“If Americans think Washington is broken, they should come and see the mess Brussels is,” he added.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

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Image: “We always assumed America would be there for us, no matter what. Not with Donald Trump, it isn’t. For the first time in history there is a US president who is rooting for the breakup of the European Union,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in an e-mail interview with the New Atlanticist. (Reuters/Christian Hartmann)