By John Lloyd
The meeting between US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Friday was delayed three days by a storm. The encounter itself could have been stormy, so opposed are the two principals to each other politically, morally and personally: but on the evidence of the chilly press conference, storms of temper were likely suppressed. We should hope that some investigative journalism can reconstruct the details of the get-together between the world’s most politically powerful man and its most powerful woman.
Trump’s clumsy effort at the press briefing to present them as fellow sufferers of Obama administration hacking – Merkel’s phone had been monitored by the National Security Agency – was met with a bewildered look from the chancellor. No possibility of even brief buddy-hood there.
Trump is a man for the moment: his loves of today are his betrayals of tomorrow. Having flattered British Prime Minister Theresa May, the first high political guest to his presidency, with lashings of special relationships patter, he casually roped in Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) – its equivalent to the United States’ National Security Agency – as the means by which Barack Obama tapped the then president-elect’s phone calls.
Trump said he quoted the GCHG involvement from a guest on Fox News: the right-wing channel later distanced itself from the charge. Yet while the president moved on to other crises, it was of grave consequence to the British spooks, whose close partnership with the American security services is essential to them – but who, as the smaller partners, are touchy about slights. In its defence GCHQ used two words (it usually uses none) – “ridiculous” and “nonsense”, which pointed to the depths of its fury.
Though this conflict has been represented as a break between the United States and Britain, it is more complex, a complexity likely to deepen as the Trump presidency continues. The American secret services really do value the British connection, one which includes sharing intelligence with other Anglophone services, as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, who make up the “Five Eyes”. Recent news suggests a deeply unsettled US intelligence community, constitutionally bound to serve a president who drops them in the ordure to back up a claim that no one but he believes.
Trump follows his own star, or that of close advisers. To an astonishing degree, it means that institutions and relationships are subject to his moods, and the lunges towards delivering the infrastructure and policies which could go by the name of “America First”. His followers have seen Europe’s nationalists as allies, or at least fellow devotees in the national patriotic quest – a view which they share with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the defeat of Geert Wilders’ far right Freedom Party in the Netherlands last week may have shown a line which most Europeans, even those opposed to immigration and frightened by Islamist terrorism, will not cross. They may be wary of Moroccan immigrants, but they are not usually prepared to call them, as Wilders did, “scum”.
That victory was the most consequential vote which the small country has had for decades: it caused an exhalation of relief from mainstream politicians all over Europe and beyond. Populist nationalism, which had just failed to elect a president in Austria, had shown itself incapable of beating the Dutch centrist parties it had scorned. Rotterdam, after all, has a Muslim mayor – as does London.
Trump has yet to be widely popular in Europe. He’s constantly lampooned – as he was in a hilarious episode of “Sunday with Lubach”, which introduced the Netherlands to Trump by arguing, among other lures, that it has “the best tax evasion system God ever created”. The nationalist parties of the right like him, they have many millions of followers, and often lead the opinion polls. But they are not a majority.
The European nationalists presently most likely to win power are not those who wish to separate their regions or nations from the EU or at least the euro currency. Instead, they are the parties who wish to separate a region – they would say, a nation – from the mother country.
The foremost of these is the Scottish National Party, which wishes to be seen as hyper-liberal, super-European and open to every kind of migrant who, as the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put it, “does us the honour of wishing to live in Scotland”. The nationalists in Spain’s Catalonia have a similar approach: nationalism, for them, is a way of leaving behind all the bad of the old nations.
Liberal internationalism and a generally pacific view of the world is the default position of the still powerful forces within the EU who see ever-closer integration of the member countries as the only way to go – a position strongly held by the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. He and his colleagues, however, haven’t done much about it so far.
The European Union hasn’t collapsed, and isn’t likely to soon. In most countries, welfare and health systems are strained but still function well enough. Income is, by world standards, mostly high. Entertainment, the great social narcotic, is now more varied, more stimulating and more freely available than at any time in history. And violent protest is rare.
This may change. In several large states – Italy and Spain ahead of the pack – unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is slightly down in recent months but still very high. Well over a third of young people can’t find work, and constitute a reserve army of the potentially rebellious. In Greece, youth unemployment is roughly 45 per cent (it had been as high as 60 per cent).
This coming weekend, 27 European leaders will gather to celebrate 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundation of the Union. Prime Minister Theresa May will be absent. No point in attending, May believes: these leaders are charting the future of the EU, and Britain won’t be part of that.
The legacy the 27 leaders will celebrate in Rome is a fine one: cooperation among old antagonists, the enfolding of the former Communist states into the Union, assistance to poor areas, thousands of new links formed among universities, NGOs, companies and political parties as well as governments, with a much greater understanding of both differences and similarities among the European states and peoples.
But it is also a legacy which has placed the Union in a cul-de-sac. The far right has suffered a setback, but its millions of adherents all over the Union will not fade away. It needs radical change, in the direction of returning powers to, not taking them from, the nation states, and bursting the nationalist bubbles. It will strain to do so: just the worst time to have, in its “closest ally”, one who doesn’t care for it.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.