Who Holds the Trump Cards? Tragi-comedies of Error Across the Pond.

Author:Cox, Robert
Position:Commentary & Analysis

October 2017

Away from the rioting outside two essential conclusions emerged in Hamburg. First, the core G20 meeting re-affirmed the outcome of the G7 a month earlier that on key issues Europe and the US are, if anything wider apart. On climate change both have dug in their heels in mutual opposition despite the expressed commitment to" combat the challenges of global climate change."

On trade, the US move towards protectionism was affirmed; Europe, like China and Japan, wants to champion global open markets. Second, Putin and Trump had a serious conversation which could lead the US and Russia backing-off from confrontation. Perhaps even more importantly, it could sow seeds of willingness to cooperate over the Middle East. These rapprochements could, for the sake of planet earth, override in importance the spasms of European paranoiac sweat that break out when the US and Russia appear to get to close.

"Uncoordinated policy actions" said the Hamburg G20 communique "will only lead to worse outcomes for all." True enough. Against the G20 background the moment is opportune to ask: what sort of evolving Europe is America dealing with? What sort of future is Europe carving out for itself? What are the issues which will continue to irritate relations between the two--but also where can Europe and America still find common ground? The transatlantic agenda is wide open.

Some reflections follow from the European side of the great Pond.

Handling the hegemon

For the first six months of 2017 Europe's chattering classes have complacently giggled or sneered with each new twitter from America's new presidential hegemon. Where on earth, dear fellows, will all this lead us? Now, stealthily, nemesis creeps up on Europe's elites. Sure, brave-new-world visions of political renewal are buzzing in Europe. And the long-blighted Eurozone is showing consistent signs of sustained growth, albeit modestly. Agonisingly it is slow to impact on Europe's perennial curse of skewed unemployment. The convergence of participant economies at the heart of the Eurozone project is slow to come.

Germany's Angela Merkel kept looks firmly set to keep her job after September's elections, but weakened. France's Macron has erupted to stand France's hide-bound politics on its head. But labour unions take their brand of conservatism to French streets against reforms. Political gun-slingers wait for him to stumble. The forlorn losers in France's recent elections moan about Macron's monarchical style. Yet France has long been a monarchy in republican clothing. In Britain, a republic disguised as a monarchy, the luckless prime minister, Mrs May wobbles from one error to another. Her antiquated Tory elite fears implosion while new enthusiastic young things transform opposition Labour. Brits wallow in the quagmire of Brexit, in thrall to that referendum result with little to show for it, now and in the future. Impossible to see how it can succeed. Impossible to say how the Brits can wean themselves off it. More about Brexit and Mrs May in a moment.

Political renewal?

Is the Macron result in France a harbinger of broad European political sea-change, casting the old left-right circus into oblivion? The short answer is probably--"no". Europe's populist parties certainly aren't doing particularly well this year. They have been bruised at the polls, particularly in Germany the Netherlands, France and Italy. Their breakthrough in Germany remains marginal, if a warning. Catalan breakaways in Spain are less powerful than they claim. Some say European voters have looked at Trump in the US and the UK's folly of Brexit and got cold feet about populism. More to the point is that neither Europe's populists nor its establishment politicians are providing answers to upcoming generations angry about inequality, precarity, austerity squeezing welfare programmes and education, fewer prospects than their parents had, blatant elite greed. The G20 in Hamburg paid lip service to "the concerns of the most vulnerable" but gave no guidance as to how to go about it. These frictions, as in the US, feed a certain left-right divide which is not about to go. In Europe, over time, that divide may re-emerge but under different labels.

One transatlantic distinction does, however, emerge more clearly. Europeans still have and want a protective shield of welfare corseted in a degree of etatism. They are prepared to pay the price in taxation for good public schools, efficient and affordable medicine, clean and secure streets, functioning public transport systems, and all other things that contribute to a more inclusive if not necessarily egalitarian society. The United Kingdom, as ever, behaves differently from the "Continent" of Europe. Tories--who see themselves, and are seen by many voters, as the natural party of government--have long, and particularly since the era of Reagan and his "political soulmate", Margaret Thatcher, muttered sotto voce their desire to scrap public healthcare and education and generally downsize the state. Just like Republics in the US. British voters, it would seem, are waking up to the consequences of this neo-liberal agenda and are starting to say "no". The scandal of poorer London high- rise apartment blocks, epitomised by London's Grenfell Tower fire horror, has further shaken belief in the merits of market-knows-best capitalism. Is Europe's "political climate changing" asks the FT (170705)? Perhaps, but don't expect revolution. But there is, as France is showing, for the first time in years, some fresh thinking about how to upgrade and redesign Europe's political and economic architecture. This applies not only to the individual member countries of the European Union but to the Union itself, its policies, its institutions, its vocation and ways of working. Bucking the trend and...

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