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With Trump out, EU nationalists lose a US ally

Barbara Wesel
November 10, 2020

The nationalist governments of Hungary, Poland and other EU members have lost a kindred spirit with Donald Trump's defeat. Will they have to rethink their strategy? Will that make politics easier for the rest of the EU?

USA President Donald Trump, Viktor Orban in Washington
Image: Imago Images/UPI Photo/K. Dietsch

Former Vice President Joe Biden made his stance on nationalist governments in Europe clear during his election campaign. "You see what is happening from Belarus through Poland and Hungary and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world," he said at a town hall event broadcast by the ABC network. "Our current president supports all thugs in the world"

The fact that Biden lumped together Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Poland's Andrzej Duda and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (right in photo) was a slap in the face for many nationalists in Europe and a warning to the governments in question. The early results of the US election caught Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa on the wrong foot. He prematurely congratulated Donald Trump (left in photo) and then obstinately held course when it became clear that Trump had lost, tweeting that the president's reelection was "pretty clear" and that any other account was "facts denying" by the media. He went so far that even his own defense minister warned him that his attitude did "not serve Slovenian interests."

In Warsaw, the government was more diplomatic and ambivalent and congratulated Biden on a "successful presidential campaign." "Poland is determined to upkeep high-level and high-quality PL-US strategic partnership for an even stronger alliance," Duda wrote on Twitter on the weekend. Poland's president had had a personal relationship with Trump and even used a visit to the White House to boost his own campaign.

Read more: Will Joe Biden go to war with China for Taiwan?

The congratulations from Budapest sounded equally ambivalent. The head of Orban's prime ministerial office, Gergely Gulyas, said he was "pessimistic" during the counting of votes across the United States. Gulyas said he hoped that the foreign policy of a new Democratic government "would be better than the last one," referring to the Obama administration — in which Biden was vice president. He also noted, as a negative, that Biden's campaign had received donations from the Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, whom Orban's government has depicted as the financier of all the evils of liberalism.

"Trump's presidency meant unconditional support from Washington," said Peter Kreko, from the liberal Budapest-based think tank Political Capital Institute. "I think a Joe Biden administration would be much tougher on Hungary, on democratic backsliding, and corruption related to Chinese and Russian investments, where Trump just looked away." 

Read more: Joe Biden speaks to leaders of Germany, France and Britain

'Blow to Kaczynski'

Poland was the only EU country in which the majority of the population had a positive view of Trump, according to surveys carried out in the fall. And this affection has its reasons: Trump supported Poland in its military confrontation with Russia and reaped the fruits of gratitude — even though the Obama administration had been the one to plan the reinforcing of US troops. What is more, Trump was a harsh critic of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, backed the Poland-led Three Seas Initiative and was seen altogether as a kindred ideological spirit. Poland is currently relatively isolated within the European Uniona, and Trump was a rare friend on the international stage.

Read more: A new US president — but no winner

"The election outcome is a blow for Kaczynski and Orban, because both had placed their bets on Trump," said Piotr Buras from the European Council on Foreign Relations. What is more, Buras said, Poland's government had misgauged Trump's interest, as the US president's chief concerns had been the potential of Poland's political course to shake up the European Unnion and Warsaw's tense relationship with Germany, which Trump had singled out as his archenemy in Europe. According to Buras, under Biden the situation will be reversed: Poland will only be interesting as a partner if it maintains good relations with BGermany. And, he said, Biden wants to strengthen, not weaken, the European Union and certainly does not want Germany to become alienated.

Buras said he thought that Biden's victory would mean a change in perspective. The ruling PiS party is going through its worst crisis with the ongoing protests against the new restrictive legislation on abortion, its mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, the fight with the EU over the rule of law mechanisms and its own internal divisions, Buras said. However, he does not expect a complete change of political course but rather adjustments to it.

Marcin Zaborowski, a journalist for the magazine Res Publica Nova, also said Poland's government had lost its closest ideological partner. Although relations with the US could continue to be strong under a new administration, he wrote, they might be marred by differences over LGBTQ+ rights and the rule of law. Trump, for his part, had never voiced criticism of Poland and the relationship had been "exceptionally cordial," Zaborowski wrote. The PiS party "will therefore perceive the imminent change in Washington with anxiety, if not open hostility,"  according to Zaborowski. The party's chief ideologist, Ryszard Legutko, has already called the result of the US election "bad news for the Western world" because the US would become like "leftist liberal Europe."

Read more: Biden renews Africa's optimism for US relations

Back to normal?

Sergey Lagodinsky, a German Green in the European Parliament, said he thought that it would help the EU when Trump's presence could nl longer bolster the nationalist governments in Europe. Lagodinsky said Trump had offered them an "alibi." He said Biden would promote EU-wide cooperation and not attempt to curry favor with individual governments. And these politicians will be aware of the dangers springing from illiberal and populist developments, he says. "There will be better preconditions in many areas when the godfather from Washington has gone," Lagodinsky says.

Lagodinsky said the defeat of Trump was a blow to nationalists across the world, but he also warned against declaring victory. "The election provides us with a pause for breath, but it doesn't exempt Europe from doing its homework," he says, mentioning such issues as increased strategic independence, greater coordination in foreign and security policy, the relationship with China and much more. But he doesn't expect direct consequences: A veto of the EU budget could come from Poland, Hungary or even Slovenia because of the rule of law clause, he says.

Without a US president intent on dividing and weakening the European Union, Lagodinsky said, political life in the EU could return to something like normal.

This article has been adapted from German.