Protesters take part in a demonstration organized by the far-right National Front party against migrants in La Tour d'Aigues, southern France, on October 23. The banner reads "No migrants in our villages"(CFP)
This year's U.S. presidential election, which attracted worldwide attention, lowered its curtain on November 9 with Republican Donald Trump claiming the crown. The result overturned most of the pre-election opinion polls and completely confounded the expectations of most members of U.S. high society.
As Trump made some radical comments during his campaign, which challenged the values and interests of Washington's European partners, his election has rather confounded the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Although the leaders of most major European nations have congratulated Trump, almost all of their messages revealed concerns. French President Francois Hollande said, "Certain positions taken by Donald Trump during the American campaign must be confronted," and the election of Trump "opens a period of uncertainty." German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered the president-elect "close cooperation" on the basis of shared trans-Atlantic values that she said include respect for human dignity regardless of a person's origin, gender or religion. The implication is clear: Merkel worries that Washington may discard these "shared values" after Trump takes office.
Possible domino effect
Actually, what worries European nations most is the U.S. president-elect's attitude toward NATO and European security issues. In his campaign, Trump stated on a number of occasions that he would focus on domestic issues, strengthening the defense of the United States and asking allies to foot the bill of U.S. military assistance. In line with this attitude, Trump proposed reducing U.S. spending on European security and defense and no longer protecting Europe for free. He urged European countries to increase their NATO contributions and assume more responsibility for their own defense. Furthermore, the United States will decide whether or not to assist European countries on the basis of their financial contribution to NATO, which means a challenge to NATO's collective defense principle and thus puts great pressure on Europe. For a long time, the continent has taken its place on the world stage with its "soft power," while its military strength has remained relatively weak as it relies heavily on the collective defense provided by the U.S.-led NATO.
Trump's policy will cause Europe to lose U.S. protection, and the continent lacks the ability to increase defense investment in a short time. Therefore, Europe will have to respond by itself to the potential threats it imagines from neighboring Russia. Trump's plan to ease relations with Moscow further upsets European countries. Then, there's the issue of whether Europe will get support from the United States to address its migration crises and terrorist threats brought by the turmoil in the Middle East.
Such worries prevail in Europe. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned Trump's election has placed America's relationship with Europe at risk.
Juncker has said Trump's ignorance with regard to NATO may pose a risk, and the election of Trump as the next U.S. president imperils U.S.-EU relations. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg claimed in a recent article in The Observer that the West faces its greatest security challenge in a generation.
Many European countries also worry that Trump's victory may produce a domino effect in Europe, encouraging political momentum for electing Trump-like leaders. During his campaign, Trump made a large number of speeches advocating populism and putting U.S. people first as well as discriminating against migrants.
Populism and extremism have spread rapidly in Europe against the backdrop of a series of predicaments: an increasing wealth gap due to globalization, sluggish economic recovery due to debt crises, decline in purchasing power, the large influx of immigrants and the series of terrorist attacks on the European continent. Trump-like political figures, such as French far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, have emerged in many European countries. Moreover, some major European powers are heading into elections during the coming year or so. At a critical moment, Trump's victory will reassure the ambitions of populist political figures and boost their morale. For instance, some French people believe the U.S. election has set a good example for Europe: since Trump has won, why can't Le Pen?
France, Germany and Italy will have to make a choice soon. Italy will be the first to go through such a test. In recent years, the Italian populist force known as the Five Star Movement has begun to emerge. In an opinion poll in July, the movement was reportedly the country's most popular political party. Italy will hold a constitutional reform referendum on December 4 to prevent the senate from abusing power in impeaching the government, in order to ensure the nation's political stability. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi promised to step down if the referendum produces a "No" vote. If Renzi resigns, Italy will have to hold an early election, and the Five Star Movement may possibly win the general election to become the dominant party in parliament, and thereby come to power.
The situation in France is even more challenging. France is probably the country in Europe where populism has grown the fastest in recent years. In the 2002 French presidential election, a National Front candidate even entered the run-off stage. In provincial and European Parliament elections in the past two years, the National Front has achieved great success by beating the ruling Socialist Party, gaining more influence in French society. Opinion polls in France also show that National Front leader Le Pen is a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential election in 2017. Le Pen is expected to enter the election's run-off, posing a great challenge to major parties. This can also explain why Le Pen congratulated Trump even ahead of the announcement of the U.S. election official results. In Trump's victory, she possibly sees light at the end of the tunnel and regards the U.S. election as a precursor to the French election next year.
Germany will hold its federal parliament election in 2017. Though its domestic situation is in much better shape than in Italy and France, populism also shows an expansionist trend due to rising social problems caused by the large inflow of Middle Eastern immigrants since 2015. Under such circumstances, Germans are also on the lookout for the domino effect from Trump's electoral victory. Though opinion polls imply that it is impossible for populist forces to take power in Germany, the U.S. experience shows that everything is possible.
Trump's future trade policies are also called into question by the United States' European allies. According to his campaign speeches, Trump will pursue protectionism. If protectionist measures were to be put in place, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership involving Europe and the United States would go up in smoke, and the blueprint of building the world's largest free trade area will vanish into nothing.
In addition, Europe also worries that the United States may give up its commitment to fulfilling the climate change pact.
It remains to be seen whether Trump will actually implement his campaign promises after taking office. Just as European Council President Donald Tusk said, Trump's election brings uncertainty and poses new challenges for trans-Atlantic ties. European-U.S. relations are undoubtedly suspect at the present time.
The author is an associate researcher with the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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