Weekend Roundup: Europe May Break The Brexit-Trump Momentum This Year

After Brexit and the victory of U.S. President Donald Trump, the widespread expectation is that continental Europe will follow suit and bring populists into power in upcoming elections there this year.

Yet one repercussion of the early days of the Trump presidency is that Europeans can now see clearly the kind of ugly incivility, volatility and chaos that will result if they go down that path. The memory of Europeans also remains closer to the devastation their continent experienced in the 20th century as a result of ultra-nationalism. You can’t step into the now meticulously reconstructed Frauenkirche in Dresden – only completed in 2005 ― without recalling the World War II destruction of that magnificent city. Despite distaste for the Brussels bureaucracy and messy politics of the European Union, what former French President François Mitterrand once said still resonates with most Europeans: “Nationalism means war.”  

Pierpaolo Barbieri writes this week that elections or governing realignments in 2017 are likely to see a “reverse domino” effect of centrists rolling back the populist tide in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy. “Europe’s 2017 may well be tempestuous,” says Barbieri, “but it will not be tragic. Indeed, the continent’s multiple electoral tests are likely to yield more, rather than less, pro-European governments than we have today.”

While Barbieri may be right about the future of the Western European core, in the east, Poland has already gone down the populist road. Christian Borys and Oskar Górzyński report from Warsaw that what we are seeing now in the U.S. feels like déjà vu in Poland. “Like the Americans who found solace in Trump’s campaign speeches targeting ‘the forgotten ones,’” they write, “many Poles felt that they, too, had been passed over in the country’s prosperity run.” But once vaulted into power by the left behind, the conservative Catholic, right-wing Law and Justice Party headed by Jaroslaw Kaczyński moved quickly in an illiberal direction, challenging the media and politicizing the courts. The authors quote one Polish analyst as saying, “Kaczyński believes he can dismantle the constitution because he’s been given a mandate to do so.”

Writing from Berlin, Tobias Bunde is not so sure that even the European core will hew to the center. He is concerned that fake news and Russian influence meddling threaten to tip the scales in his country if not frontally challenged. “German society is not immune to illiberal forces,” he worries. “On the contrary, the fact that Berlin played a central role in rebuking Russian aggression in Ukraine makes it a target for propaganda and disinformation campaigns, especially from those who reject sanctions and strive to protect Russia’s ‘sphere of influence’ in Eastern Europe.” Bunde argues that, while populists should be engaged and not shut out, “we also cannot tolerate half-truths or false information, nor can we accept foreign propaganda. In the end, there is nothing more critical than our liberal democracy itself. And it cannot survive without a fact-based, open debate.” 

Apple chief Tim Cook echoed this concern in a recent interview with The Daily Telegraph. The explosion of misinformation is a “big problem in a lot of the world” and is “killing people’s minds in a way,” he warned. “Unfortunately,” he said, referring to fake news, “some of the people that are winning are the people that spend their time trying to get the most clicks, not tell the most truth.” At a recent Berggruen Institute conference, eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar expressed the same concern in starker terms: “Virality is undermining democracy.” 

Writing from Rome, Roberto Sommella reviews the laundry list of valid criticisms of the EU and the single currency. But he concludes that it is time to decisively reaffirm that the benefits are greater than the downsides. For the youth who will inhabit the future, all of Europe has become their common home, he says. And a common currency has made Europe as a whole a central player in global trade. Further, even as other Europeans dislike Germany’s dominant role, Sommella argues, “They forget that, without the ties that link it to the European Union, Germany would act just the same, free as a panzer in the plains – would this be an advantage to [the] Italians, [the] French and even the Brits?”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Europe this week for events marking the ratification of the new Canada-EU free trade pact. Ulf Gartzke and Mark Entwistle posit that one consequence of President Trump’s bashing of both open trade and European integration is that it is making Canada Europe’s key trans-Atlantic link. If the North American Free Trade Agreement is renegotiated as Trump has promised, that, in their view, will make the EU-Canada relationship even more critical. “Many European companies have made big bets on Mexico as a low-cost manufacturing location with easy access to the U.S.,” they write. “The fact that Trump has threatened to impose a new border adjustment tax on imports from Mexico or to even leave NAFTA constitutes a major geo-economic risk for these firms, including German global players like Volkswagen or BMW.” If the U.S. continues down that path, they predict, Canada will likely become the “platform from which European companies can gain access to the U.S. market.”

Back in America, the suspicion is growing that the disruption and turmoil unleashed on multiple fronts by the new administration in recent weeks is an intentional effort guided by White House counselor Steve Bannon to wreak havoc. Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who became a target of worldwide Islamist ire for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, recounts a conversation last year in which Bannon outlined his apocalyptic views. Rose notes that, first of all, he disagrees with the Trump strategist’s notion that the West is at war with all Muslims. Most worrisome for Rose, though, is, “Bannon’s conviction that the way to a better world sometimes necessitates blowing up what is” and his “apparent belief that violence and war can have a cleansing effect.” 

In a similar vein, Akhilesh Pillalamarri interprets Bannon’s worldview in light of his reputed reading of the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Pillalamarri writes that Bannon “seems to have a worldview in accordance with some of the teachings of the Gita that see the world as a cosmic battlefield, possibly imagining himself as warrior of dharma [righteousness or duty], adapted around his idea that the defense of capitalism and Christianity should be militarized and seen in the context of a great clash of civilizations and ideas.” 

Lauren Markham reports from the Santa Rosa region of Guatemala on how drought and a fungus called coffee rust are destroying the livelihoods of farmers there and forcing them to migrate. This, she reports, is a prominent example of how climate change can “collude and collide” with gang violence, inequality and a lack of opportunities to drive migration. What is happening in Guatemala, Markham warns, is a harbinger of what could come throughout the world.

Our Singularity series this week reports on how robots created 100,000 jobs at Amazon. By driving down shipping costs and passing on those savings to customers in cheaper prices, demand has increased. To fulfill the new demand, new workers were hired. Looking at another side of robots, Future of Life Institute’s Ariel Conn talks with leading scientists about how smart AI can really get.

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