Opinion: Trump hasn′t been all bad for the EU | Opinion | DW | 20.01.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: Trump hasn't been all bad for the EU

For the EU, Donald Trump's election proved a steep learning curve, and the damage caused by the US president will be difficult to repair. But Trump's tenure has also done Europe some good, writes DW's Max Hofmann.

It's hard to imagine that just two years ago, life was without Donald Trump. In Brussels, seat of the European Union and NATO, the US president's role is pivotal. And even from his office on the other side of the Atlantic, Trump has certainly burned himself into the collective memory of Europe.

Trump's unforgettable appearances at NATO summits, where various ranting tirades caused considerable commotion and ruffled plenty of feathers. The threats of tariffs on European cars and the announcement of a US withdrawal from  the INF treaty on nuclear disarmament also sent Brussels into a spin.

So, from a European point of view, everything about the US president is abominable? Most people would see it that way, but it's not entirely true. In many ways, Trump has actually done the EU good. The benefits of Trump for Europe are clearly unintentional but also rather obvious. "The Donald" has united the EU.

Read more: 'World still needs NATO," writes Germany's defense minister in NYT

Trump's stances have ensured European solidarity and progress in many areas. Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) among EU members in foreign and security policy, for example, would not exist as it does now without Trump.

Ever since Trump's election, the popularity of the bloc has been on the rise — at least on the continent's mainland. In Brussels, some may even say — behind closed doors — that Trump is the best thing that could happen to the EU.

'The medium is the message' — or is it?

Yet Trump does of course also pose a threat to Europe. And that's not just for the obvious reasons: withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, and destabilizing global trade relations.

Instead, it is because even within the borders of the EU, Trump is garnering support among the population and politicians. They don't necessarily admire the president for his tantrums, insolence and insults, but they appreciate his disregard for political correctness and that he addresses truths often swept under the rug. A few examples?

— The accusation that the Europeans were not paying the amount committed to defense under NATO: patently correct

— The accusation that the US is in a disadvantageous position with the EU and China regarding tariffs: in many respects, correct

— The declaration that Russia violated the INF Treaty: correct

— The declaration that some multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, are outmoded and inefficient: in recent years, also correct.

The way Trump conducts himself is well below the belt — there is no denying that. But that's not enough to nullify his Twitter tirades, because many people don't care about manners, especially in this day and age.

Brussels is listening...

But the EU should do its best to take the wind out of his sails. In some cases, it is already doing so, for example in increasing defense spending and in coordinating foreign and security policy.

Europe is also beginning to take seriously the concerns of the many people drifting towards populists like Trump. These include concerns about digitization and one's own identity in a globalized and increasingly complex world — one whose reality is increasingly shaped by digital giants in China or the US.

The success of Italy's Matteo Salvini, serving as both deputy prime minister and interior minister, and of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are cold, hard proof that the EU has not yet been able to dispel these concerns.

...But its learning curve is steep

So what is there to take away from two years of Trump? The EU is trying to use the momentum that the US president has brought to many issues of world and trade policy to its advantage. Trump has finally given the bloc the impetus to construct an EU that is not just important economically but has what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called "Weltpolitikfähigkeit," which he defined as "the capacity to play our role in shaping global affairs." 

DW's Max Hofmann

Max Hofmann, DW Brussels bureau chief

Juncker's experience and cleverness make him one of the few European politicians who seem to have found a successful strategy on how to deal with Trump. In trade policy, he offers simple and clear compromises, the game of simple give and take that the "businessman" Trump can apparently make sense of.

In terms of reducing the impact of would-be Trumpian populists, making use of the room for maneuver in world politics, and finding the most effective strategies to deal with the US president, the past two years have meant a steep learning curve for the EU.

However, neither Europe nor the rest of the liberal world has found effective means to prevent the havoc being wreaked by Trump on the trans-Atlantic relationship. Trump is unintentionally ensuring that the EU finally seeks self-reliance.

But from a European perspective, surveying the mounds of broken porcelain, it would nonetheless have been better if Europe could have come of age without Trump in the picture.

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