"The Trump Administration Is Working To Undermine The EU," EU Top Official Guy Verhofstadt Says.
As President Trump addressed a joint session of the US Congress for the first time on Tuesday night, with a speech about the “renewal of the American spirit”, one of the EU’s top officials and chief Brexit negotiators, MEP Guy Verhofstadt has accepted to answer our questions in an exclusive interview about Donald Trump’s difficult relationship with the European Union, the rise of populism in the world, the Russian threat over major European elections in 2017 and the future of the European Union.
In his first speech at the joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday night, President Trump mentioned the new posture of the US diplomacy around the world: “Our allies will find that America is once again ready to lead,” but he also warned: “I am not representing the world. I am representing the Unites States.”
Guy Verhofstadt, who is an experienced statesman — he was a former Prime minister of Belgium (1999–2008), is one of the most prominent and outspoken European politicians today and a leading Putin critic. He is widely regarded as a pro-European reform-minded pragmatist. His views are pro-integration oriented and he is an advocate of the EU’s “ever closer union.”
Mr Verhofstadt, in a speech you gave last January at Chatham House, “Brexit and Beyond: Europe’s Last Chance?”, you called Donald Trump “a threat to the EU” because he “spoke very favourably of the fact that other countries (Editor’s note: in addition to Britain) will want to break away from the European Union, and that he hoped for a disintegration of the European Union.” How dangerous do you think he potentially is to the EU and why does he matter to the EU?
“European integration has been a pillar of US foreign policy since the Second World War. It appears that prominent members of the Trump administration are set on not only reversing this policy, but even working to undermine EU unity, which could have profound implications for European unity and security, if the EU doesn’t get its own house in order.”
On various occasions, Guy Verhofstadt has been very vocal about Vladimir Putin’s meddling in European affairs. It was the case for instance in 2015, when he openly criticised Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras on Twitter over his meeting with the Russian President after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Greek financial crisis: “The Greek Prime Minister should stop trying to play Putin against the EU. Putin cannot save Greece, the EU can.” It consequently led to Mr Verhofstadt being included in a Russian blacklist of European politicians, officials and military leaders who are now barred from entry into the country.
In another speech, last November, Mr Verhofstadt said that the then President-elect Trump was one of a “ring of autocrats” alongside Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan, who “not only like each other, they also have one thing in common. Bashing and destroying our way of thinking, our values, our European liberal democracy.”
The yet-unconfirmed allegations that Russia may have been involved in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 raise concerns about the kind of threat the European Union now faces from both the occupants of the White House and the Kremlin. Nowadays, inflammatory words may damage the Western allies’ relationship in just 140 characters, whilst the populist and so-called “alt-right” propaganda in national elections may also do enough to spell chaos from within the EU.
Is Donald Trump a threat to the EU mostly because of his alleged “relationship” with Vladimir Putin? Is the real danger in Washington or in Moscow?
“It appears that members of Trump’s administration, for example Stephen Bannon, the White House Chief of Staff, are in regular contact with Nigel Farage, Le Pen and other far-right nationalists in Europe while actively seeking to expand so-called “alt-right” news outlets and disinformation campaigns in Europe. This is precisely one of the methods that Putin uses in his war against western liberal democratic institutions, to undermine elected Governments and influence our elections. I hope General Mattis (Editor’s note: Trump’s Defence Secretary) and others close to the President will work to contain extreme views within the Trump administration — and understand that close cooperation with the EU has always been in the American interest.”
In September 2016, Guy Verhofstadt was appointed as lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, which he called “an honour” on Twitter. The former Belgian Prime minister knows how important it is for the EU to get the Brexit negotiations right.
However, as the Article 50 Bill is still making its way through the British Parliament and whilst cabinet ministers were told by Brexit Secretary David Davis on Tuesday morning to prepare “for the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached”, Brexit is just one among other great concerns the European Union faces today.
With Donald Trump in power in the United States, the Brexit negotiations about to start with Britain, the rising threat of populist and nationalist parties in elections across Europe, Russia’s interferences, the terrorism threat… What do you think the European Union must do right now to survive?
“The EU must reform and integrate further if it is to survive. Brexit is an opportunity to reflect on the state of our Union and build on what we have achieved together so far. In my view, the status quo — a half-way house — risks further disintegration.”
How do you achieve that?
“We need a far-reaching reform of the European Union. A more efficient and less bureaucratic Union, a more prosperous Union with a strong Euro and a more effective Union that can play its role in the world with a European Defence and security capacity.”
The likes of Trump, Farage, Wilders and Le Pen keep repeating in the media that the EU will just explode within the next 5 years or less. How can European voters trust the European Union works for them?
“I am also critical of the European Union we have today. But I believe instead of destroying the EU, we should reform it. Look at the world of today: no European nation can preserve stability, prosperity and freedom alone. It is time for citizens who believe in the EU project to fight for it.”
How do you solve a problem like populism?
“Liberals and Democrats have a responsibility to stand up to populists and nationalists to hold them to account, while offering an alternative vision based on values. Belittling the people who voted for Brexit, Trump and their European equivalents is not a sound strategy. The new global demagogues must be judged by their deeds and vanquished with truth, reason and respect for democracy.”
Donald Trump, one of the "global demagogues" Mr Verhostadt is talking about, might well end up having to show the evidence that proves his claims that President Obama ordered the wire-tapping of his phone during the election campaign, claims that the former president's spokesman totally refuted. Just another invention to try to divert the media's attention from Trump's Russia-related spy/hacking problems.
Note: Guy Verhofstadt is also the author of a book, “Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union”, published in January 2017 by Basic Books and available on Amazon. In the book, Mr Verhofstadt offers his vision on how reforming the European Union through federalism could lead to a strong ‘United States of Europe’ that would help make the world a better place.
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J.N. PAQUET is an author, journalist and political writer. He is the editor of PoliticsMeansPolitics.com. His book series on populism and nationalism “The Tip of The Populist Iceberg?” is available in print, eBook and audiobook worldwide.
(Cover photo cover: Guy Verhofstadt at a discussion panel on European policies in the House of World Cultures, in Berlin, 3 October 2012 - © Markwaters | Dreamstime.com)