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How Trump Will Feed European Populism — And Could Destroy The EU

With the American billionaire heading to the White House, the European establishment is quaking in its boots.

Donald's Trump shadow
Donald's Trump shadow
Richard Werly

PARIS — The scene took place in Brussels on Monday. Asked at the daily briefing about the possible election of Donald Trump in the United States, and on his impact on this side of the Atlantic, a top European Union spokesman avoided even saying the billionaire's name. And the preference of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker? "He would obviously prefer a woman in power in Washington," the spokesman said.

It was (and now, is) well understood: The EU expects an earthquake from America when Donald Trump arrives in the White House. It is an earthquake with many moving parts as Europe faces major questions of its own, from migrant policy to free trade to open borders.

But beyond the Transatlantic policy questions, which will take time to unfold and would involve complex negotiations, the more immediate impact could be electoral. French political scientist Pascal Perrineau said the Trump phenomenon is going to "naturally boost the heart of the European and French extreme right: namely, with a rejection of the elites." It will become increasingly untenable, with Trump in command of the world superpower, to continue to demonize and dismiss France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Even more difficult to brush off is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose own anti-immigrant "wall" has succeeded in keeping migrants from entering his country. A similar point can be made in Poland, which has been led since 2015 by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, of the hard right.

"For these populists, Trump would be a strong accelerator," noted one European Parliament member from France. "An anti-immigration apostle in the White House: Can you imagine that?"

In Germany, Pegida, the anti-Muslim movement, and the far-right AFD party, were banking on political upheaval in the United States to lay the groundwork for the parliamentary election in October 2017, and before that, to shake up the debate in the election of the next president of the Republic (by parliament) in January 2017.

Meanwhile, in Italy, we know that the populist (though left-leaning) Five-Star Movement of Beppe Grillo believes its time has arrived, with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi facing an uphill battle to win a national referendum next month on constitutional reform. December will also see the election for the new Austrian president in which Norbert Hofer, an extreme-right candidate, has a realistic chance to win.

Finally, back to France, where next spring's presidential election is already under the influence of Donald Trump. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy sent aides to the United States to observe the "choleric" campaign of the billionaire, ahead of his attempt to return to the Elysée Palace in May 2017.

Will Donald Trump be the ultimate force to deconstruct the Europe Union in the wake of the UK's "Brexit" referendum. "What worries me most is the crisis of legitimacy that his election could set off," says a veteran EU official. "All those who defy Brussels' standing agreements will see his election as a blank check. Since the new European Commission took office in 2014, it has continued to lose authority in the face of member states. Trump will help to unravel this structure."

Still, there were a few voices in Europe who downplayed Trump's impact, comparing it to the damage caused around the world by the American imperialism of the George W. Bush years; and noting the potential advantages of a realignment of Europe toward Russia. "At least Trump is not interventionist and that will make an enormous difference," former French Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, of the Socialist Party, told Le Temps last week. "That will force Europe to look at its own problems and interests at hand." Chevènement called for the urgent return to "a Europe of nations whose center again becomes the member states."

Still, a fractured Europe will have even more difficulty making the necessary decisions in the face of an American power that is increasingly unilateral and unpredictable. So not only could Donald Trump accelerate the forces of populism in Europe, he could also speed up the disintegration of a European Union already made fragile by Brexit.

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