EU must be vigilant against Trump attempts to destabilise it

The US president is in Poland this week, where his brand of populism is welcome, as it is in Hungary, but we must not allow him to play eastern and western Europe against each other, says Guy Verhofstadt.

Setting the EU's eastern members against its western members only benefits Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

US president Donald Trump is no leader of the free world.

He is deeply unpopular in most countries, and has done serious damage to the US’s reputation, according to a new Pew Research Center study.

Three-quarters of the world has little or no confidence in Mr Trump, whose favourability in most countries is below what George W. Bush’s was when he left office, says the Pew.

By that time, Bush had invaded Iraq and had presided over the beginning of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Even in neighbouring Canada, just 22% of those surveyed expressed confidence in Mr Trump. Sentiment toward Trump is more unfavourable in Western Europe.

In Germany, only 6% of respondents think he is qualified to hold his current office, and 91% regard him as arrogant.

Similarly, 89% of respondents in the UK think Mr Trump is arrogant, and only 50% believe that the US and the UK still have a special relationship. This might explain why Mr Trump’s scheduled state visit to the UK has been postponed indefinitely.

The countries where Mr Trump has the most widespread support are Poland (73% see the US favourably) and Hungary (63%), which are both led by populist, right-wing governments.

Poland’s defence minister has described Mr Trump’s planned visit to Warsaw this week as an “enormous event” and a “huge success” for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) government, which is raging against the European Commission and alienating Poland’s European allies.

Under PiS, Poland has been drifting steadily toward authoritarianism and has become increasingly isolated within the EU. So, it is not surprising that Mr Trump would want to visit Poland.

After all, this is a president who campaigned on a platform of ‘America first’ nationalism, bet on the far-right French populist Marine Le Pen, and applauded the outcome of the Brexit referendum, even musing that other countries should follow the UK out of the EU.

Mr Trump will undoubtedly try to deepen the EU’s internal divisions by playing its eastern flank against its western members. The Hungarian and Polish governments are both eager to advance their projects of “illiberal democracy”.

And we can expect Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Poland’s unelected de facto ruler, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to gladly indulgeMr Trump’s bigotry.

His simplistic, xenophobic rhetoric will find a sympathetic audience among Poles and Hungarians, who fear large-scale immigration.

Large swaths of central and eastern Europe’s electorates have been mobilised by populist rhetoric, and the region’s governments have refused to co-operate with the EU’s collective response to the refugee crisis.

While polls suggest that western European electorates are coming back to supporting European integration and pro-European reformers, this positive mood has not yet reached central and eastern Europe, where suspicion toward the EU remains strong.

Unfortunately, the political environment in central and eastern Europe is ideal for populists, who refuse to participate constructively in the European project. Given this, and the real danger that other countries could pursue their own exit from the bloc, Mr Trump must not be allowed to exacerbate divisions.

Central Europeans must understand that moving to Europe’s periphery will harm their own interests by undermining their ability to influence the future of the continent.

It is up to these countries to seek a compromise. No-one has more to gain from a divided Europe than Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has long sought to disrupt the EU by destabilising countries on its eastern periphery.

The European Commission, the European Council, and the French and German governments need to use all of their means to ensure that the rule of law in central and eastern Europe is maintained, while reaching out to people in those regions who still uphold and defend EU ideals.

We need to build bridges in policy areas that are currently creating divisions, including migration, posted workers from one country to another within the EU, and energy policy.

The EU urgently needs to create a true energy union to reduce its dependence on outside, increasingly hostile countries, not least Russia. And we should develop a credible European defence union within Nato to strengthen co-operation across the EU and alleviate eastern member states’ security concerns.

If we can find common ground, we can start to bring central and eastern European publics back on board. It is in no one’s interest — except Mr Putin’s — to allow any EU member states to be pushed into a corner.

It is now up to Europe’s leaders and the Trump administration’s more responsible members, such as secretary of defence James Mattis, to prevent the US president from harming the EU.

To do otherwise would be to risk weakening the western alliance, upon which global stability and order rests.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is president of the Alliance o f Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.



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