Survey of a very eventful week on the Old Continent
After the Trump victory: Whither Europe?
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee is to be congratulated for their prescient selection of Bob Dylan as this year’s Laureate of the Prize for Literature, because his signature song “The Times, They Are A-Changing” captures impeccably where we stand today in the international landscape after the victory of Donald Trump in the US elections on November 8.
The Trump effect in Europe may be identified so far in just one country, France, but its significance there can hardly be overstated. The primaries to select the candidate of the Center Right Republican Party, heir to the Gaullist political legacy, have brought to the fore the one contender who has been implementing the same political formula that propelled Donald to the White House: a call for fundamental change of direction in government policies, a populist rejection of the elites based in the nation’s capital, assertion of traditional conservative social values of the provinces that involves rejection of multiculturalism, and a call for a Realist as opposed to values driven foreign policy that leads specifically to friendly relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Having served in various ministerial posts in the 1990s and early in the new millennium, François Fillon was for 5 years prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, so he was hardly a dark horse. And yet in the current race for the presidency he was not viewed with serious interest by the media and professionals. Their attention went primarily into whether Sarkozy’s latest bid would be stopped, with less care as to who would stop him within the party and why. In that sense, his victory has taken the French political world by surprise.
The chances of the socialists in the next national elections are virtually nil now that Francois Hollande has run his own personal approval rating down to an unheard-of 4%. Thus, the great likelihood is that the candidate from the Republicans, Fillon, will win the French presidency in the national election against the candidate of the Far Right, Marine Le Pen. He has picked up most of the marbles from the National Front, leaving behind only their rejection of EU membership and its currency, which probably is a step too far for most of the electorate. Interestingly, Bloomberg.com has this weekend issued an editorial backing Fillon as the best placed politician to keep Le Pen from power; the news agency swallowed whole his many policies that follow in the tracks of Donald, whom the very same agency, like nearly all US media, portrayed as the new Satan. We hear not a word from them about his being a tool of Putin, although his opponent Alain Juppé played that card in the last week.
On Friday, 25 November, the online poll of the newspaper of the Right, Le Figaro, considered Fillon the winner of the last televised debate the night before 71% to 29%. Alain Juppe’s attempts to use Hillary Clinton claptrap about Russian influence succeeded with the French voters no better than it did in the USA. The second round of primaries balloting on Sunday, 27 November bore out the clear trend, ending in a victory for Francois Fillon with 67% of the votes cast.
Fillon has called repeatedly for forging a genuine alliance with Russia to defeat ISIS, and this will be a central demand of French foreign policy when he comes to power, meaning that the sanctions policy of Obama and Merkel will be killed with one stroke.
To be sure, attempts to see the long hand of the Kremlin in the Fillon candidacy had in fact more justification than the total fabrication of lies that were used against Trump to assert the same point. A year ago at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum Fillon was a featured speaker and panelist in discussions with Vladimir Putin. Fillon’s Russia-friendly statements were welcomed and given proper airing on television. At the time, however, Sarkozy seemed to have the Right to himself, and any bets on Fillon by the Kremlin seemed even less likely to pay off than the widely advertised loans given to Marine Le Pen’s party by a Moscow bank.
To be sure, the importance of Fillon’s victory within his own party and likely victory in the national elections in the spring of 2017 resides not in any accommodation with Russia but in his plans for making his country great again, à la Trump. His policies to revive business and industry entail tackling the 35 hour work week that has made France uncompetitive, slimming the civil service which has sucked in an additional one million employees under Hollande in what was the only measure he implemented to combat unemployment that was durable, raising the retirement age. All this will require great political skills and courage, but if he does succeed, Fillon holds out the prospect that France will become the strongest country in the EU within 10 years. That is an ambition that has been totally absent in France during the past decade or more of decay and national humiliation. In the debate he also called the present foreign policy of the European Union insane. We can be sure that very early in a Fillon presidency the sparks will fly between Paris and Berlin as they vie for leadership of the EU, whereas for the whole period of the Hollande presidency France was just ballast.
This prospect of a power struggle between the driving countries of the EU is entirely healthy, and more constructive than all the Euroskeptic attacks on the Union from the Far Right that have bubbled up since Brexit and have absorbed the attention of media pundits.
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The past week brought another major political development at the general European level, the announcement that Marten Schulz, President of the European Parliament is retiring from that post in order to return to German domestic politics, where he is expected to be named as the candidate of the Social Democrats (SPD) for Chancellor in the federal German elections scheduled for next autumn. This has great importance on two counts: what it means for the prospects of Angela Merkel, the current favorite to remain in power with nearly 50% favorable ratings in latest polls despite all of her political missteps over the past year; and what it means for the European Institutions considering who may be Schulz’s successor at the helm of the Parliament.
As regards the internal German politics, Schulz is likely to bring greater dynamism to the SPD cause than the leader he would be replacing, Sigmar Gabriel, who is Vice Chancellor in the CDU-SPD coalition government. But it is hard to see how even an energized SPD can hope to win majority control of the Bundestag on its own or in coalition with prospective partners such as the Greens. Therefore, the greater likelihood would be yet another coalition with Merkel, with whom in the important area of foreign policy and German control over EU Institutions Schulz is surely on the same wave length. Both stand for a ‘values based’ as opposed to Realist foreign policy, meaning in particular continuation of Cold War behavior and continuation of anti-Russian sanctions.
To be sure, there are in the liberal wing of the SPD those who hope Schulz can be turned around once he spends more time in country and in discussion with his fellow party members. However, as recently as in his keynote speech to the plenary session of the Boris Nemtsov Forum held in the European Parliament building on 16 November, Schulz was an enthusiastic defender of ‘liberal democratic’ (read: Neoconservative) guiding principles for operating regime change in Russia and other allegedly authoritarian countries, stridently rejecting calls to reason from those within the EU itself (read: Hungary) and those abroad (read: Donald Trump’s America).
The vacancy left behind by Schulz logically should be filled by a parliamentarian from one of the Right parties, following the tradition of alternation in power of Right and Left (Schulz having occupied the post on behalf of the Left). In this connection, one name now being put forward cannot be ignored, Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and long-time leader of the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals (ALDE).
There are many good reasons why Verhofstadt’s candidacy for the post must be taken with all seriousness even if his contingent in the Parliament (10% of the house) is considerably smaller than the European People’s Party, the main Center Right grouping. He is without question one of the best endowed parliamentarians intellectually and has been a highly visible campaigner for European federalism, which is the most principled response that the Center can produce to the Euroskeptics and which is all the more relevant if indeed Trump’s plans to cut US contributions to the European defense requires the creation of a European Army.
Verhofstadt was a regular speaker at the pro-federalist Spinelli Group events in Brussels calling for a United States of Europe. In 2012, he co-authored the handbook for a federal Union with a founding member of the German Greens Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Debout l’Europe. Before the 2014 European-wide parliamentary elections, he campaigned for federalism in a number of countries across the Continent.
At the same time, Verhofstadt ensconced in the European Parliament would represent a ‘last stand’ of US Neoconservatives, with whom he has been closely aligned, taking part in various events sponsored by the Foreign Policy Initiative of Robert Kagan and William Kristol. It would align the Parliament with the anti-Kremlin policies that Verhofstadt has personally authored and promoted for much of the past decade in cooperation with his party’s colleagues among marginally seditious Russian Opposition politicians that included Parnas group of Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov. Typically, Guy Verhofstadt was one of the key organizers of the Boris Nemtsov Forum on the 16th and introduced Marten Schulz from the dais.
Verhofstadt as President of the European Parliament would mark a sharp split with Juncker at the Commission, who is not a crusader but a Realist. It would probably ensure that for the foreseeable future the European Parliament is just a talking shop with little real power.
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To conclude, the past eventful week has shown that there is and will be movement of enormous importance in Europe both inside the European Institutions and between the European Institutions and the Union’s key Member States in 2017, even without considering the possible nipping at the heels of the great and the good by Euroskeptics from the smaller and more marginal Member States, and even without considering the challenges to the status quo in Europe that will come from Donald Trump’s administration, including from his likely search for compromises and relaxation of tension with Russia.
These elements acting separately or in combination can have but one outcome: the end of the New Cold War and the possible, if not yet certain rise of realism over ideology in international affairs.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016
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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015