Trump Is Taking Advantage of Europe’s Divides, Not Causing Them

This article originally appeared on this site.

Even before President Trump set foot on Polish soil, the leader of the country’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, the former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, declared Trump’s decision to visit Warsaw a “new success” for Poland that made other countries jealous. Poland’s defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz, said that his government is on the same page as Trump when it comes to being attacked by “liberals, postcommunists, lefties and genderists.” And, as a pro-government crowd chanted Trump’s name on Thursday, Trump delivered an address in Warsaw where he urged Russia to halt its meddling in Eastern Europe, and pledged that the U.S. would defend its NATO allies. But he also painted “radical Islamic terrorism,” unchecked immigration, and government overreach as existential threats to Western civilization.

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

In Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, Trump’s challenge to Russia and defense of NATO will be welcomed, but his rhetoric on the dangers of immigration will likely be seen as the latest example of the American President trying to sow populist division in Europe. The current Polish government is anti-immigration, skeptical of climate change, and pro-coal. Its domestic opponents accuse it of eroding civil liberties as well as undermining independent media outlets and the country’s judiciary. Western Europe’s liberal leaders fear that Trump’s Poland visit, and his policies in general, threaten to sow further discord throughout the continent.

The problems with European unity, and the continent’s deep economic, social, and political divides, predate Trump’s Presidency and are so vast that his visit to Poland is unlikely to significantly change them. For now, a series of recent elections in Western Europe has averted an immediate threat to European Union unity. The French nationalist Marine Le Pen and her party, as well as anti-establishment parties in the Netherlands and Austria, did not succeed in coming to power. Even in Britain, whose unexpected vote in favor of exiting the E.U. seemed to presage its collapse, Theresa May and her pro-Brexit party fared poorly in the recent general election. A convincing victory for Emmanuel Macron, in France, has further reassured those who were preparing to mourn “the end of Europe.” And the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who looked politically weakened only a few months ago, has regained her stature.

Yet the optimism of Europe’s liberal order is not shared in Poland or Hungary. For them, a stronger European Union means greater pressure from Brussels, which they distrust and regard as overreaching. Poland has been under harsh criticism for its anti-democratic practices. Earlier this year, the E.U. Commissioner for Justice threatened to cut the organization’s funding to Poland if it failed to uphold fundamental European values. (Poland is the E.U.’s largest recipient of funds.) Poland, in turn, has claimed that the E.U. is run by “German diktat.” Even Polish opposition members who are harshly critical of the country’s current government admit that Poland regards Germany “as a potential security threat.”

In Warsaw, Trump also attended a meeting of the newly created “Three Seas” initiative, which looks like an effort to form a counterweight to the Franco-German-dominated E.U. The initiative includes a dozen countries, but even they have precious little unity among them. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are hardly friendly toward either Poland or Hungary. (The Czech Republic President and its Prime Minister are not attending the Warsaw meeting.) And Poland and Hungary differ strongly on their relations with Russia. (Poland is radically anti-Russian, while the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is on good terms with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.) And while Poland takes a strongly negative attitude toward the E.U., the three Baltic states are staunchly pro-Brussels.

Hanging over all of this week’s speeches and meetings, from Warsaw to Hamburg, is economics. For the poorer European nations, a European Union strengthened by Macron’s victory and Merkel’s improved stature is hardly a reason to rejoice. Many Central and Eastern Europeans fear the prospect of a “two-tiered Europe where they are second-class citizens,” Ivan Krastev, the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria, wrote in the Times last month. A “two-tiered” Europe is an unappealing choice for poorer “second-tier” nations, Krastev argued. In a European Union led by France and Germany, less wealthy nations can either be marginalized or become more dependent on decisions made elsewhere, by Merkel and Macron.

Macron’s calls for “harmonizing tax regimes” across Europe and “penalizing for exporting cheap labor” would destroy the economic model of post-Communist Central European nations, which is based on low taxes and cheap labor, Krastev contends. And while individuals in Europe’s poorer nations still have the ability to potentially find better-paying jobs in Germany or elsewhere in Western Europe, their home countries sink deeper into economic decline. It is this economic division between the stronger and wealthier (Western) Europe and its weaker (Central and Eastern) members that is a true threat to European unity, not Trump’s brief visit to Poland.

One of the issues that Trump is expected to discuss in Poland is expanding sales of U.S. liquefied natural gas to Europe, in particular to members of the Three Seas group. (The first delivery of American gas to Poland was made last month.) If American gas sales are significantly expanded, this could deal an economic blow to Russia, which happens to be Europe’s primary natural-gas supplier. But it might also antagonize Germany, as it would undermine an ambitious Russian-German gas-pipeline project, Nord Stream II, which also involves several major European companies.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric is regarding Europe, the economic forces dividing the continent can hardly be slowed down or reversed. “The divide in Europe is deep and complex and will hardly go away even after Trump’s Presidency becomes history,” Krastev told me. As he has done in the U.S., Trump will try to take political advantage of long-term economic trends that existed before his political rise—and will continue long after his power fades.