What Trump means for federalists

, by Tom Vasseur

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What Trump means for federalists
cc The New Yorker, Liam Walsh

As we approach week four of Trump’s arrival to the international scene, much remains unclear. Despite this murkiness, we can discern two important aspects of Trump’s victory for Europe and for federalists. First, the geopolitical consequences of his presidency on European external action and second the ideological developments symbolised by his election.

Euro-American relations: the rift expands

The main concerns lie in three areas – foreign, trade and climate policy. Trump’s proposed policies in the first area have the potential to directly undermine European unity, through his qualification of NATO’s Article 5, the principle of collective defence, leading European politicians to quickly rebuke and asking him to pledge his commitment to NATO’s statutes. Diplomacy will not suffice – the genie is already out of the bottle – as soon as Article 5 was called into question, NATO’s stability and power became compromised. European governments will have to accept that many of them have indeed neglected their financial commitments to repair the damage done to NATO. European NATO member countries cannot credibly call for the US to keep to its obligations while not fulfilling their own. Defence budgets will have to increase to 2% of GDP. Federalists should not look forward to the end of NATO in the hope that it will mean the beginning of a European army. There is still no alternative to NATO, constructing it will take time. Instead, federalists should advance proposals based on building an alternative to NATO from the inside. The need for this is clear, because even if European member countries do fulfil their financial commitments, an air of suspicion and uncertainty will remain as long as Trump remains our American interlocuter. More concrete medium-term proposals could be the partial Europeanisation of defence capabilities within the framework of NATO or the structuring of current ad hoc European bi- and multilateral defence cooperation initiatives. In addition, EU-NATO cooperation should aim to set up European structures which, in the event of a breakdown of NATO, will be able to take over relatively quickly. The situation in Ukraine is the next important point on our foreign policy list. Trump has expressed his willingness to negotiate with Putin to de-escalate relations, but what this means for Ukraine is unclear so far. Already during the Obama administration the interests of the US and the EU differed on this issue to a degree, but there was an agreement that it was not acceptable for parts of Ukraine to become surrogates of Russian power. It is uncertain if there will be changes in the US attitude towards the status of Ukraine, but federalists should remain alert. We must bear in mind that while federalists often share the EU’s interests, this may not be the case here. In the case of a change of US policy on Ukraine the EU might chose to prioritize its relation with the US over a free and independent Ukraine. If this happens, Federalists must not forget their commitment to democracy and stand in solidarity with their fellow Europeans in Ukraine.


Then comes TTIP. The election of Donald Trump will most probably be the final nail in the coffin of the already troubled Transatlantic Treaty negotiations. On this issue, federalists and others in civil society will of course be more split than on NATO and Ukraine.it is a problem for everyone that Europe will suffer if Donald Trump decides to unleash a trade war upon the world by putting up barriers around American industry.

Climate change

Less directly related to European unity, but of even greater importance to us all is Trump’s climate change agenda. At a time when some climatologists have concluded it is too late to mitigate the effects of human-induced climate change, president-elect Trump has laid out plans that would only increase the emissions of one of the most polluting countries on earth. Here, as with foreign policy, a growing distance between Europe and the US will be a probable result of Trump’s election. While the outright direct annulment of the Paris Agreement will probably not take place, stagnation on progress towards climate targets seems to be the best case scenario of environmental policy under his administration. Federalists, recognizing the danger of climate change to the world and Europe, should push for member states to voluntarily let the EU receive a stronger role in negotiating on their behalf in the field of international environmental policy. In doing so, we can ensure that the United States of America will not try to frustrate efforts to tackle climate change by setting up EU member states against each other. At the same time, we must take into account that this European Commission itself has taken a less than exemplary role when it comes to environmental policy.

Trump: a story of perverted hope

Trump’s electoral success also has important politico-ideological implications. His election was followed by a global outpouring of astonishment and disappointment from across the political spectrum. Now that ’the populists’ have won one of the most important offices in the world others are likely to follow, mainstream parties bemoan the new normal. As they well should. But, we should be alarmed at the lack of serious reflection these events should initiate.

As European federalists we should question the basic categories used to analyse our situation. In the days following the election the occasionally reference has been made to Václav Havel’s statement that “hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."

The intended message from those who used this quote is clear: Clinton has lost, but do not give up. However, while Havel’s observation is quoted in opposition to Trump, a more thoughtful consideration of his statement would lead to a different view. As hard as it may be to accept, Trump embodied a form of hope. His campaign did not have an optimistic basis: he rejected the myth of American exceptionalism and pointed towards the dismal state of the American Dream. Still, his core message is not a rejection of Obama’s politics of hope, but a perverted continuation of it: Yes we can (make America great again)!

The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, had a message of optimism: America is already great and its greatest years are still ahead of it. It was a message that did not resonate strongly enough, because it was too far from the lived reality of many Americans. The fundamental incompatibility of optimism with discontent is its core weakness, because addressing the latter requires the recognition that all will not necessarily be well. Instead, the Clinton campaign kept sounding the horn of progress when US society was experiencing stagnation.

This is, of course, a rough sketch. Trump’s campaign also contained optimistic elements and Clinton did not completely ignore the troubled situation of the US. Still, the pattern holds broadly and, more importantly, it finds parallels within the EU. In a number of countries the political field is split between an optimistic political establishment and what are called ’populists’. The establishment view of the latter – which the federalist movement broadly identifies with – is that they are manipulative and divisive. This dismissive attitude means that the populist message is not properly recognized as a version of a message of hope. Instead there is a retreat into optimism. There might be issues and challenges, but essentially all is well and getting better. Federalists should take a more distanced, critical attitude towards this dichotomisation of the political field. Many elements in our movement – such as our trans-ideological orientation or the focus on unification – create a tendency to align ourselves with the establishment view. However, on many points the establishment has served federalists badly. Especially national governments’ preference for national egoism has prolonged and aggravated the ’crises’ of our times (to such an extent that the term crisis is wholly inappropriate). They repeatedly have threatened some of the most established elements of European integration. When having to choose between pointing fingers at other nationalities while making rich use of inciting stereotypes, and admitting the flaws of their own actions, national establishments have resolutely chosen the former and the list of possible complaints goes on.

There is plenty for federalists to be discontent about together with others. The federalist movement needs to become less of a minority within the establishment and more of a constructive opposition movement. It is the other lesson to be drawn from the failure of Clinton, the moderate candidate par excellence: this is a time where resolutely standing for your ideals is no longer a disqualification. And so we should.

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