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A few days before his inauguration as U.S. president, Donald J. Trump took aim at the United States’ most important allies. In an interview co-published by Germany’s Bild and The Times of London on January 15, Trump disparaged NATO as “obsolete,” chastised German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her government’s openness to asylum seekers, and seemed to advocate the breakup of the European Union, calling it a “vehicle for Germany.” Those comments came two days after a different bombshell: on January 13, Anthony Gardner, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the EU, said that officials from Trump’s transition team had called EU leaders and asked which EU country would be “leaving next.”
Trump’s words marked an extraordinary departure from the norms of the postwar transatlantic relationship. For decades, the United States and the EU have been each other’s most important foreign policy partners, tightly bound by a thicket of alliances and institutions, joined at the hip in promoting liberal democratic values, and trading and investing with each other at unprecedented levels. Particularly in light of the uncertainties surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU, Trump’s comments shocked many observers who support the transatlantic relationship and the broader liberal order it guarantees.
Might Trump’s attacks backfire by encouraging EU countries to unify against him? A number of European leaders have suggested as much. “We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” Merkel said on January 16, in a forceful response to Trump’s comments. Others have echoed French Finance Minister Michel Sapin, who said on January 17 that “the more [Trump] makes this sort of statement, the more Europeans close ranks.”
Unfortunately for supporters of the European project, Sapin’s prediction is unlikely to hold. Instead of unifying the EU, Trump’s apparent Euroskepticism may undermine it by stirring up popular anger against internal enemies: the faceless EU technocrats and disdained national elites who seem disconnected from the day-to-day problems of most European people.
What are the reasons to believe that Trump’s presidency might prompt the EU’s revival? The first is that people tend to define their identities not only in reference to those with whom they share values and cultures but also in opposition to those with whom they do not. Social psychologists have long argued that the construction of a sharply drawn other encourages group solidarity. At first glance, it appears that Trump could play precisely that role.
The West has certainly seen that kind of dynamic before. Consider the Europe-wide antiwar demonstrations that took place on February 15, 2003, in Athens, Helsinki, London, Madrid, Paris, and Rome, when millions marched against then President George W. Bush and the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq. Citizens across the EU reviled Bush for what they viewed as his illiberal warmongering and rejection of international treaties on climate change and human rights. European intellectuals such as Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas heralded the protests as evidence of a newly united continent.
Much has happened since then to weaken European solidarity. A global financial crisis and soaring income inequality have brought economic stagnation to millions on both sides of the Atlantic. Many Europeans now view the EU as either the source of the problem (especially in the countries most hurt by the eurozone crisis) or as an accessory to it, and they blame EU policies supporting open borders and the free movement of people for much of Europe’s malaise. The increasingly popular argument that the EU is governed by technocratic experts and establishment party elites who are out of touch with the people is giving populists all the material they need to win at the ballot box, as was the case with the Brexit vote.
Trump may seem more like an ally than like an other.
In this context, Trump may seem more like an ally than like an other. That is why many of Europe’s populist leaders, including the heads of France’s National Front and Italy’s Five Star Movement and Northern League, have embraced the new U.S. president. (So has the British Conservative Party, the only centrist party in the EU to have done so.)
But if the United States cannot play the role of a unifying other for the EU, perhaps there is another way that Trump’s jabs could solidify the bloc. Political unification feeds on threats: most of today’s nation-states were formed when governments centralized political and administrative power in order to survive serious dangers, such as wars. What is more, political communities often rally around the flag and solidify their national identities during apparent crises.
Here again, the answer to whether Trump could unify the EU should offer only lukewarm comfort to the union’s supporters. Trump’s inflammatory comments do not pose an immediate existential threat to the bloc. If the entente between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin proves enduring and inflicts direct harm on Europe’s interests, that may change, and Europeans may find themselves forced to unify in response. But even if that dynamic materializes, its effects might be drowned out by popular demands for political change after years of economic austerity and technocratic leadership.
The imagined community of Europeans that the EU has constructed offers only watered-down versions of the cultural and emotional attachments of traditional nationalism. The threats that Trump may present to the EU are therefore unlikely to bring about an immediate or heartfelt embrace of the European project. Instead, his stance may encourage the kind of authoritarian populism that has already taken hold in Hungary and Poland.
The EU and the transatlantic liberal order that Trump recently attacked were created to advance American interests at a time when the United States had unsurpassed power. Out of the ashes of World War II, the United States approved the constitution for postwar West Germany, helped bring about the birth of the EU, constructed the foundations of what would eventually become the World Trade Organization, and drew up the blueprint for NATO. These liberal institutions, created in the United States’ image, acted as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and underwrote prosperity and stability, guaranteeing the same kinds of American wealth and power that Trump has promised to restore.
The EU’s road ahead is steep. As it manages the consequences of Trump’s election, it must also face its own shortcomings. EU leaders and citizens must confront the passions of populism head on, responding with a full-throated defense of the EU’s achievements while building the capacity at both the national and European levels to deal with the union’s challenges. As for the United States, it may be in a deeper hole, since it must confront the possibility that many of the institutions that have historically underpinned its supremacy may be dismantled. For the EU, that prospect offers few silver linings.