The European Union is celebrating 60 years and the treaties signed in Rome on March 25 with the shared duty of facing the new challenges: in short, to respond to the social crises in its member countries, to calm the pervasive fears of its peoples, to face the threats to their security and to give new hope for the renewal of the union as a whole. Now more than ever, Europe feels the need to be faithful to its original ideas and to act in solidarity and with respect for all its citizens.
The celebratory meeting in Rome was given a powerful lift by the victory of the Dutch premier Mark Rutte, who beat the populist threat of the anti-Islamic preacher Geert Wilders. To a large extent, it was a personal fight that played out under the lights of a huge European audience. There were deep fears in Europe after the British disaster of Brexit and the election in the United States of Donald Trump, a man who is anything but a friend of Europe. Another ominous contest opposed the Dutch leader to the Turkish demagogue and aspiring dictator Erdogan. Premier Rutte responded to the threats and insults from Ankara in the style of someone who has not lost faith in democracy. Better still, he acted like the man who believes in the power and dignity of the state, after his government approved austerity measures that brought down unemployment and revived growth. The triumph of his strategy was contained in a courageous but risky stand, when he invited those who do not follow the rules to “simply leave.” It was a change of strategy that was dictated by the need to defeat Wilders’ threat. Fortunately for Holland and Europe, the ploy worked and a majority of the Dutch approved.
If most of the member nations of Europe heaved a great sigh of relief over the defeat of the racist Dutch movement, the times are still fraught with heavy worries, not the least of them the challenge of dealing with an American president who is hell bent on the idea of America First. The domestic security agencies in Europe share the dark assessment that Russian president Putin is acting to influence elections in Europe. The strategy is quite obvious: to disrupt the web of European solidarity and push the Union’s members into disarray. Besides undermining support for the Union, the Russian design is to undermine the credibility of NATO and the very confidence in democracy among Europeans. President Trump’s flirtations with the Russian leader are just one reason why European governments are nervous. One of the main targets of Putin’s strategy is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong voice in maintaining sanctions against Russia for the invasion and annexation of Crimea and significant support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine. At a time when the U.S. leadership should work hand in hand with the German government, the disturbing cold atmosphere of Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington cannot but deepen the strains in European-American relations.
And now the German government has brought to light worrisome discoveries of possible Russian interference in the German elections through wide cyber attacks. In France, where critical elections will be held next month and in April, one of the favorite candidates, Emmanuel Macron, has accused the Russians of targeting him with smear tactics. In brief, there are dark clouds hanging over the European Union’s celebrations, from the hard negotiations precipitated by Brexit to the rise of anti-establishment political parties. The developments in the new century have changed the situation in ways that threaten the political order. First and foremost, the old socialist forces have lost ground and are unable to promote liberal anti-populist programs. Socialists will likely be cut out of the French final round of two candidates and in Spain the traditional social-democratic PSOE has been reduced to being water carriers to the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.
In Greece, Papandreu’s Pasok had been swept aside by the Tsipras’ effect. In Austria, the alternative to the populist movement is to be found not in the old style socialist party but in the Greens. In Italy, the Democratic Party that embodies the left is splitting on the inside, opening the door of the government to the so-called Five Stars, a maverick movement headed by a former comedian.
In fact, the only country where the socialists have a chance to get back into the government is Germany, where Martin Schulz, an old hand in the European community, is trying to return the SPD to the levels of Merkel’s governing party. It is certainly worthy of note that at a time when Angela Merkel – a strong democratic leader in Europe and an unwavering force in support of NATO – is striving to stick to her idea of Europe as an agent of peace, she is undermined by the president of the United States who seems to have only one thing in mind — to make the Europeans pay more for the maintenance of Europe. For Merkel and many other European leaders, the only consolation is that the same President Trump is in the process of weakening the special relationship with the United Kingdom.
The order of the day is no longer the credibility of the European-American ties but the unpredictability of their future. If there is a ray of hope it is this: the lesson to be drawn from the Dutch elections is that at the end of the day, facts will prevail over words, not just in Europe but in Trump’s America.