Make Europe strong again – an alternative to Trump and Putin
Summary Europe can become a an alternative to Trump and Putin by defending the open and free society, the liberal international economic order, the rule of law, human rights, the humanist value of tolerance, human dignity and equality.
This op-ed was first published in the leading Danish newspaper, Politiken, January 28th 2017.
The inauguration of Donald Trump at the White House was a dramatic, painful and historic event. The new president of the United States of America will not defend Europe, but he could be set to divide it.
He is a right-wing nationalistic president who wants to isolate his country behind trade walls and punitive tariffs rather than leading the Western world into the future. Brexit is a fantastic thing, more countries want to leave the EU and NATO is outdated, Trump also told The Times and Bild Zeitung.
He feels no moral or historical obligation to protect the free, liberal and democratic ideals on which the US nation was built, and which it has helped spread across the Western world after the horrors of World War II.
The time has come for Europeans to decide if we want to take control of our own destiny and strengthen the European Union rather than weakening it.
We find ourselves at a dangerous crossroads. We are no longer, as the German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger once said, surrounded by our admirers who dream of freedom, democracy and a social market economy. We are surrounded by authoritarian, autocratic and populist rulers who do not share the same values upon which the European Union has been built.
Trump’s United States is becoming more protectionist, unpredictable and chaotic. The Twitter president is leading a Blitzkreig on social media so nobody can predict what his next move will be.
Trump, who fired off more than 700 lies during his election campaign, is a huge manipulator you would never dream of trusting. He flirts with the radical Nigel Farage whilst he undermines Angela Merkel. He admires the authoritarian Putin, who violates territorial boundaries in Europe and punishes opponents of the system.
And Trump’s chief strategist in the White House is one of the chief whips behind the extremist and right-wing nationalist Alt-Right movement, Stephen Bannon. This is not just a tea party. It’s more extreme than that.
Trump’s inauguration speech was cleared of his election campaign’s ethnophobia and hate towards immigrants. But his “America First” nationalism to a certain extent seems like a reminiscense of fascist policies of the 1930s: Patriotism for those united by blood, protectionism in trade policies, a Mexican wall to block out imagined foreign enemies, threats against manufacturers who do not submit to the new state ideology, and the shaming (now via Twitter) of anyone who does not follow the great leader’s commands.
Trump’s Old Deal
Other countries are not seen as strategic partners, but as thieves who have stolen American jobs. Trump is launching an ‘Old Deal’ with large investments in fossil fuels and infrastructure built by American workers. And he wants to give more money to the military. Trump claims that power is being given to the people, even though it is being taken over by billionaires, the military and right-wing nationalists.
Behind him are angry voters who were tired of the old establishment and dreamt of a strong white man who would put America first. This is not a re-run of Citizen Kane or a bad reality TV show. This is reality.
In his election campaign Trump threatened to imprison his rival candidate, urged citizens to take the law into their own hands, attacked a judge because of his ethnic origin, and appointed his son-in-law as his senior adviser against the country’s anti-nepotism law.
There is a great risk for abuse of power in the new Trump CEO regime, but hopefully the American rule of law and its democratic institutions are stronger than the man in question – just like in the Nixon era. Trump’s megalomaniacal, self-important and “me first” narcissism is in a league of its own.
He behaves like the bully in the schoolyard who preys on the weak, bashes up his enemies, threatens the downtrodden and teases the disabled. He embodies a sexist and male chauvinistic view of women taken straight out of the 1950s’ Mad Men universe.
In both words and actions he has treated women as objects who should be willing to fulfil his sexual fantasies or put up with his wandering hands. Trump’s election was a big setback for the many educated women, from the US and Europe, who are trying to break barriers and secure equal rights in both business and politics. Any parent who has a daughter has a right to be worried if this is how the world’s most powerful man is setting the tone for his time in office.
Merkel shows her class
Trump is the antithesis of modernity. He expresses values and views of the world that we as Europeans should distance ourselves from and not appease as the US’s submissive, silent companion. The EU was founded on fundamental values and they should be protected in 2017 and not cast aside.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done this elegantly in a way that demonstrates her class:
“Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views,” she said after the election in November.
And on the basis of these values she offered to cooperate with the new government. The message between the lines is that if Trump does not share these values, Merkel's Germany will still defend them. Other politicians like the Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeyer have pointed out that the EU must “remain a stronghold of reason”.
Not everyone in Europe shares this vision. Some hope that Trump will be the precursor of their own political breakthroughs, and that Marine Le Pen will become the president of France.
If Europe’s right-wing nationalists attain the power they seek, they will destroy Europe from within and establish a new set of values. Viktor Orban celebrates the illiberal order. In the national-conservative Poland, Kaczyński attacks the independent courts and opposes the EU’s multicultural, liberal and democratic mainstream.
In Italy the Five Star Movement’s leader Beppe Grillo exclaims “we are barbarians!” whilst he challenges all conventions. Theresa May has opted for a hard Brexit, by which the United Kingdom will leave the single market and play hardball. But May isn’t part of the right-wing nationalistic movement because she dreams of a global UK that will enter into bilateral free trade agreements with the EU and its member states. But the UK could end up like a helpless pawn stuck between Trump’s new protectionism and the anti-liberal sentiment on the continent.
Right-wing nationalists are twisting reality
From the US to Europe, populists and nationalists want to build walls and barricade their countries with barbed wire. Whereas the Western world since World War II has strived to spread its values through more free trade, more international cooperation and an open society, Trump’s supporters are fighting for a closed society.
Fear, rather than hope, is their driving force – with contempt for whatever is already in place. They demand control, but they also want to destroy the international institutions – including the EU – that have helped bring peace, security and prosperity to citizens.
Today the EU has a number of crises to deal with. Shared problems such as social exclusion in the process of globalisation, terrorism, increasing migration and weak border control are pressing issues that the EU needs to address. Individual nations are not strong enough to solve cross-border problems.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and support for the EU is still strong. This support actually increased after the UK decided to leave. Despite having strong national identities, 67% of the EU’s inhabitants also feel like EU citizens, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey. 81% are still in favour of the free movement principle that allows them to live, work, study and do business across borders. Only 22% believe that their country would have a better future outside the EU, whilst 58% of Europeans believe the future looks brighter if their country stays in the EU.
Right-wing nationalists claim to be the only ones who represent the people, but they are twisting reality in Europe as well as America.
The US is a great pluralistic society with many great personalities and movements. Trump won a majority of the Electoral College votes, but Hillary Clinton got 2.8 million more popular votes. And a new wave of opposition could emerge from the public.
Millions of people marched in more than 600 cities across the globe in the Women’s March on the 21st of January 2017. From Washington to London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney, it was a powerful signal for the Trumpists.
Europe to defend our open and free society
This could be the beginning of a new global civil rights movement. For much too long, civil society has stood silently and passively under the wave of chauvinism, nationalism and xenophobia that has washed over the US and Europe since the financial crisis, terror attacks and influx of migrants. A new civil rights movement could give political leaders the inspiration, power and courage to lead our societies out of these global crises.
Barack Obama said in his farewell speech that “if the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened. So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.”
Who should carry the torch further now that Obama is no longer at the White House? Europe should. The EU can become a catalyst for the wave of opposition by defending our open and free society, the liberal international economic order, the rule of law, human rights, the humanist value of tolerance, human dignity and equality regardless of gender, sexuality, race or class.
We need another type of patriotism than the one that feeds from nationalistic phobias: A new, committed, constitutional patriotism in Europe, which actively defends our European values and addresses the problems our citizens are facing. Trump’s US will leave an empty legacy that the EU needs to fill. The EU should assume the role as leader of the free world.
We should expand the single market and enter into free trade agreements not only with Canada, but also push for more trade agreements with Asian countries and others that want to trade fairly and on equal terms. We must establish strong partnerships with countries that share our values. Globalisation and international division of labour leads to greater prosperity. But fear of globalisation and growing social inequality fuels EU scepticism and nationalism.
That’s why, after many years of political and economic austerity, the EU needs to come up with a New Deal. Without stronger social cohesion we risk division within our societies, and the right-wing nationalist parties can only benefit from the failure of the EU’s leaders. We are in need of a new social contract.
EU countries should invest much more in technology, renewable energy and infrastructure that helps Europeans become more competitive, productive, prosperous and enjoy more employment opportunities.
If Trump wants to act like a turtle and retreat into his protective national shell, we should stick our necks out and show that we can be attractive leaders for the rest of the Western world. We can build stronger bonds with the populous, emerging economies in Asia and help African countries to modernise their economies.
Europe’s own trump card is its open society. We can only solve common global challenges if we align ourselves with other nations, establish committed relationships and institutions and actively support the international rule of law rather than undermining it.
Whilst Trump casts the climate change battle aside and reverts to fossil fuels and “Old Deal” policies, the EU needs to become a green superpower that invests heavily in renewable resources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy.
This could be the new realism of resource economics made for the 21st century. The continent needs to unite with a single energy market using an intelligent European electricity grid with smart meters.
Instead of wasting over 260 billion euro each year on fossil fuel imports from authoritarian regimes, we can invest in solar power systems, wind farms and geothermal energy that will make us self-sufficient. The cost of installing solar power systems has fallen by 60% since 2010, and in a few years renewable energy is expected to become competitive on the market.
We are also moving into a fourth industrial revolution with sensors, Big Data, the Internet of Things, robots, self-driving cars, civilian drones, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and new biological material technologies. In Europe, we shouldn’t be anxious about the future or build walls, but embrace these possibilities.
Europe as an alternative to Trump and Putin
Europe should have a combined fibre optic network with gigaspeed, so that everyone in its cities has free access to the internet and digital solutions. A high-speed 5G mobile network should be available from country towns to cities.
Europe’s future competitiveness depends on building a public – potentially supported by private investments – gigaspeed network across the whole continent, which would make our continent a global frontrunner.
Its citizens should all have access to better, smarter and higher level education. There should be more, not less, investment in human capital. EU countries must embrace globalisation and the fourth industrial revolution – and revitalize its social market economy.
The least educated, who risk losing out when millions of manual jobs become automated, must be re-trained and supported to cope with these changes. If they are neglected, the EU could experience an even greater nationalistic backlash.
A continued puritanical and austere approach to fiscal policy is the wrong approach. We should invest our way out of the crisis. The EU has been plagued by low growth rates for many years, unnecessarily fuelling social and political tensions.
We need stronger and more proactive leadership in the EU. After the French and German elections, Chancellor Merkel should take the initiative to start institutional reforms in the EU, giving it more vigour and dynamism.
If reluctant nations such as Denmark, Poland and Hungary resist, other willing and more energetic frontrunners among the member states should not be discouraged. Instead, they should stride ahead and build a stronger union at the core of the EU.
A common economic government for the Eurozone, stronger policies against tax evaders across borders, closer police cooperation, tougher external border control, and a common security and defence union are essentials. Europe cannot afford to become a helpless victim of Trump and Putin’s random agendas.
The core of Europe – if not the entire EU – should cooperate on a project to make Europe a global frontrunner and a political alternative to Trump’s protectionist US and Putin’s authoritarian expansionism. If we seize our opportunity, the 21st century could mark the renaissance of the European project.