Trump victory risks hardening EU’s stance on Brexit

31 January 2017 9:54am

9th November 2016. By Matthew Holehouse

The election of Donald Trump as US president complicates the task of forging a deal between the UK and the EU.

Since June’s referendum, the political imperative to defend the European project against an anti-establishment uprising has been in tension with the economic imperatives that point to a business-as-usual deal.

Angry talk in the days after the Brexit vote of needing to make a painful example of the UK has given way to focusing on the mountain of detailed technical work, as leaders consider how to build a long-lasting and deep relationship. Trump’s victory may change that.

The EU’s leaders feel intimately a link between the angry nativism that drove Trump and much of the Brexit vote, and the catastrophes that befell Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

The American result will confirm fears that the UK referendum wasn’t an aberration, but the first wave of a storm. They fear that victory in France for Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and a Trump supporter, in the elections next spring would be a fatal blow for an EU whose purpose was to rein in nationalist forces.

“I feel that ordinary people sense a great change is coming,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, told the UN in September. Globalization had made fear contagious, and the pre-war order failed, he said, because it “was paralyzed by inertia, fatalism and, finally, by cowardice.”

“I can see similar phenomena everywhere today,” he added.

With leaders under siege, the magnanimous compromises needed to strike a British deal may be harder to make.

The Trump victory also removes the role of the US as a mediator whose strategic interests lie in preserving European stability. Days after the Brexit referendum, US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Brussels and urged European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to avoid a “scatterbrained or revengeful” settlement.

A similar peacemaking role could have been foreseen under a Clinton presidency, if solely to preserve the interests of US airlines and banks operating in the UK that stand to suffer from a messy divorce. By contrast, Trump, who said his victory would be a “Brexit plus, plus plus,” is not an ally the UK can use.

But these forces might play in the opposite direction. The same instincts for stability and preservation that could see the UK left in the cold could also play for a fast, continuity deal — more so if the risks of economic downturn in the eurozone are heightened under Trump.

UK leaders see British intelligence agencies, and the country’s ability and willingness to deploy troops and aircraft on NATO’s eastern flank, as a major element of any EU deal. Trump’s admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his open equivocation about upholding NATO’s Article 5 commitments to defend the Baltic states, might see EU leaders rush to lock in those assurances.

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