As Europe’s Liberal Order Splinters, Trump Wields an Ax
Posted June 18, 2018 7:53 p.m. EDT
Updated June 18, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT
With a rift over migrants bringing German politics to a boil, the country’s feuding leaders scraped together a truce Monday on an issue that threatens to topple the fragile government.
Then President Donald Trump stepped in.
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump said on Twitter, before falsely claiming that crime in Germany had risen because of immigration.
The migrant issue is a political wildfire in Europe. It has breathed new life into populist movements from Hungary to Austria to Italy. In Italy, the newly formed government coalition rose to power in part by drawing on anger about migration. It introduced its immigration policy last week by turning away a boat carrying more than 600 migrants from Africa.
These forces are making it harder for European centrists to hold onto power — and as his comments made clear Monday, Trump is not making it any easier for America’s longtime partners.
“He’s quite clearly trying to split Europe,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University’s campus in Prague, and a former senior aide to the first president of the Czech Republic.
The U.S. president sometimes uses remarks on events abroad to bolster his position at home. So it was perhaps not coincidental that his tweet about Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany came as he faced a storm of criticism at home over the immigration issue, particularly his policy of separating children and parents at the southern border.
But his comments have led many to suspect his intentions on the Continent.
On Monday, facing a mutiny over the immigration issue, Merkel, anchor of the Continent’s centrist establishment, narrowly avoided the collapse of her government.
Merkel has been a sometimes lonely champion for a compassionate approach toward refugees, and for the increasingly endangered liberal consensus that has held sway in Europe since the end of World War II.
Trump’s comments Monday were the latest by him, his aides or his associates that suggest a desire to disrupt that consensus, a desire that has seemingly deepened as partners they find more ideological allies in Europe to work with.
Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, said this month that he wanted to “empower” right-wing figures across Europe. And if there is one issue on which Trump can make common cause with his new allies, it may be immigration.
It is too early to say whether Trump’s scattershot outbursts are the harbinger of a settled strategy, said Jeffrey Rathke, a former senior U.S. diplomat who served in several missions in Europe.
“But there is certainly an increasing body of evidence that Trump and his representatives are trying to find ways of strengthening those right-wing forces in Europe that oppose the EU playing a strong foreign policy role,” said Rathke, deputy director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Two days before his seeming glee on Twitter about Merkel’s travails, Trump spoke by telephone for the first time with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has spent eight years in Budapest building an “illiberal democracy.”
Orban has called for “a countercultural revolution” against the Continent’s liberal order. He has led the campaign to turn back migrants from Europe’s borders. As Merkel argued for a more compassionate response to the crisis in 2015, the Hungarian leader built a fence along his country’s southern perimeter. Last month, Mike Pompeo, the new U.S. secretary of state, welcomed Orban’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, to Washington. It was the first visit by such a senior Hungarian official in several years.
Janez Jansa, a hard-line former Slovenian prime minister who rode the migrant issue back into power this month, happened to be visiting Orban at the time Trump and Orban spoke. Jansa later said he had been included in the call, in a statement released to news media in Slovenia, where his party is struggling to form a coalition after emerging as the country’s largest party in a general election this month.
Trump has also been a vocal supporter of Giuseppe Conte, the new Italian prime minister, whose government is formed from two populist parties elected on a platform of opposition to the European Union, and opposition to migration.
“He will do a great job — the people of Italy got it right!” Trump tweeted. That came soon after Trump refused to sign a joint statement with other members of the Group of 7, the diplomatic alliance formed mainly of European countries. He also placed tariffs on European aluminum and steel, raising fears of a trade war with the European Union.
Grenell, Trump’s new ambassador to Germany, voiced his desire to buttress the European right in an interview with Breitbart News, a far-right website once closely associated with Trump’s former senior adviser, Stephen K. Bannon.
Bannon himself has been touring Europe. He met with Orban; praised Italy’s new government; spoke to far-right activists in France; considered creating a Breitbart-style news operation in Central and Eastern Europe, in collaboration with one of Orban’s closest advisers; and described himself as “the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”
“There is now a real worry that the Trump of the campaign — with Bannon on his shoulder whispering disrupting ideas in his ear — is back,” said Tomas Valasek, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels-based research group.
Trump’s agenda is the “exact opposite” of U.S. policy in Europe after World War II, when the United States also meddled in European politics — but to bolster the Continent’s liberal order rather than to bring it down, Valasek said.
The only comparison in postwar European-American relations came in the period just before the Iraq War, when the administration of President George W. Bush attempted to undermine European opposition to the invasion of Iraq by pitting European countries against one another, said Rathke, the former diplomat.
But this, he said, is “a very different kind of effort.”
“This is not about how European governments relate to one another,” Rathke said, “but instead an attempt to strengthen particular types of political forces inside Europe, particularly those that are a challenge to the governments in place.”
That seemed to be the intent of Trump’s broadside on Merkel, who has faced a mutiny from her rebellious interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who wants Germany to tighten its borders drastically.
Though a majority of Germans support greater immigration restrictions, Merkel remains Germany’s most popular politician, according to recent polling, and crime in Germany is at its lowest for a generation.
Seehofer has become the latest politician to link arms with the populists, pledging to reverse Merkel’s open-door policy toward asylum-seekers as he tries to fend off an election challenge from the far-right party Alternative for Germany in his home state, Bavaria.
On Monday, he and Merkel agreed to a two-week cease-fire in their standoff over migration in Germany, leaving the chancellor to scramble to make a deal with European allies on an issue that could topple her government.
If Merkel fails to reach an agreement with Germany’s European partners to limit immigration, Seehofer said, next month he will start turning back any migrant whose asylum process is pending in another European Union country, or who has been registered as arriving there.
“We still do not have a grip on the whole migration issue,” said Seehofer, a strong opponent of the chancellor’s decision to open the borders to nearly 1 million asylum-seekers in 2015.
“This is not about buying time,” Seehofer said.