The Trump Era and the Future of the EU
An interview with Derk Jan Eppink, the former Vice President of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group
The world was surprised last year by both Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election. These events had a large political impact and have caused many people to heed the growing populist movement. We are facing several national elections in Europe this year in which we may see similar outcomes. To understand where this may lead, we interviewed Derk Jan Eppink, the prominent European conservative politician. He devoted his career to serving in the European Commission and the European Parliament.
Derk Jan Eppink
Dutch writer and politician, Senior fellow of the London Policy Centre, former Vice President of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) in the European Parliament and former cabinet secretary for European Commissioners Bolkestein, and Kallas.
Director General of International Politics Division, Happy Science
Europeans Are Fearful of Trump
Fujii: First of all, as a European conservative, what is your impression of President Donald Trump and his administration?
Eppink: The people in Europe are very much frightened. They are fearful of what they see from the U.S. They think there will be World War III. They think that America will become very dangerous. And they regard Russia as less dangerous than America. That is because of the tone of the campaign, and also the tone of Trump who’s basically leading a populism movement – much more than a conservative movement. I also have to say that the image of what’s happening now is completely created by the New York Times and CNN, because European journalism bases its information mainly on them.
Fujii: Is that true?
Eppink: Yes. They are getting their sources too much from one side, from media that are very partisan. The New York Times and CNN will never acknowledge Trump as President, so they will always be against him. Even if he creates paradise on earth, they will still be against him. So, I try to get a sort of a “counter” voice – another view.
Why Trump Won?
Eppink: Mr Trump is very unconventional. He differs very much in style from his predecessors – including from Republican predecessors. He has the style in what we now see, of reality TV, of popular television programs, of social media, on which everybody has an opinion and can express it. In that way, he makes politics. So, he uses all these instruments in his political strategy. Then, he speaks the language that the man in the street understands, and gives it a very populist tweak. He has created this populist movement which contains parts of the Republican ideology and of the Democratic ideology. So he’s combined the two.
He also combines two important pillars of the electorate in the United States. The South in one block and the Rust Belt in the Midwest. The Rust Belt used to be dominated by the Democrats. He stole them away. So, that’s how he created his majority in the South and in the Rust Belt. The Republicans would never win the presidency only on the basis of the South. They need more. No other candidate could get into the Rust Belt very well. Now he did this, and he took away the white workers from the Democrats. That basically curtails the power of the Democrats.
“Free Trade” or a Bilateral Approach
Fujii: What do you see in the Trump administration’s agenda?
Eppink: Now, he’s going to carry out a big part of the conservative agenda. Such as the nomination of the Supreme Court Justice, the control of immigration and many other things. But he has announced them as executive orders with some differences from the conservative agendas.
The first one is that he is much more sceptical about “free trade”. He doesn’t believe in this multilateral approach. He wants the bilateral approach. He does not believe in global governance. He believes in nation states. By the way, many countries in the world are not really nations like Belgium. But that’s what he believes in. So, he wants to replace multilateral agreements with bilateral agreements. That creates a completely different landscape.
The Republicans were always in favour of free trade. Here, with his point of view on free trade, he serves part of the electorate of the Democrats in the Rust Belt. The white workers lost their jobs. They are angry. They say it’s because of Japan, China and others. So, they feel supported by him. However, he is listening to them. These people have the impression that he is in fact, listening to them. They regard themselves as “the forgotten people”. This is one point of difference from traditional thinking.
Other Views on Trump’s Agendas
Eppink: The second one is Russia. Especially the Republicans, much more than the Democrats, were in Cold War thinking on Russia. However, Trump comes and says: “I want to make a deal with Putin. I want to see him. He talks very nicely about me. I’m very glad about it.” He has a different approach from the Republican orthodoxy.
The third point is in social conservatism. Abortion is an important point here in social conservatism. He always was in favour of choice. Now, he is in favour of life. He changed his opinion very quickly over the past years. So now, he nominated a pro-life judge. On abortion, he’s towing the line. If you look at gay marriage, transsexuals and all other things, he doesn’t really care about that. I think in terms of ethical issues, Trump is much more liberal than the conservative base. But he doesn’t say that. His life testifies that he is more liberal with all these marriages. In the South, they are very religious and very Christian. He says, “I defend Christianity.” They believe that he will. That’s why he has strong support in the South.
The EU in Identity Crisis
Fujii: Do you think there are any problems in the EU now?
Eppink: I was Vice President of the European Conservatives and Reformist Group in the European Parliament. Conservatism is mostly defined as people who have tested old ideas, “time-tested” values. Recently, there was the Munich Security Council in Germany. People went there from the European Commission and the European Union. They came back from that conference, and have the idea that the United States is now against the EU.
Fujii: At that conference, Vice President Mike Pence tried to assure the European leaders. But it seemed that most of them remained sceptical about Trump’s foreign policy to Europe.
Eppink: The European Union was already in an identity crisis, even before Trump, as a result of mistakes of their own making. There was the Eurozone, which was designed well but it went off too fast with too many countries, with too much of a different philosophy on monetary policy.
On Asylum Policy
Secondly, there is the asylum policy, which basically was designed without borders. There is the Schengen Zone of free travel of persons which is related to that. There was a foreign policy of creating a ring of friends around Europe, and exporting European stability to those regions. Instead, we have imported instability from those regions. So, Europe is in a huge crisis. But they don’t want to admit it in the EU, that they created the problem themselves. They look for scapegoats to blame. No doubt, they will blame Trump saying, “Trump is against us. Look what’s happening! Can we survive?” There is very little self-confidence in the EU. There is no leadership. Recently there was a summit of government leaders in Malta, and they agreed on nothing. So, it’s a bit of a “zombie” organization. Trump puts his finger on the problem.
The Impact of Brexit
Fujii: Last year Brexit made a huge impact on the European countries.
Eppink: It’s very important. I was in the European Parliament with a group of British conservatives. I was the vice president of the conservative group. 50 percent of the group were British conservatives. So, I know that relationship very well. Legally, the British were in the EU. Mentally, they were outside the EU. So, they decided to leave the EU because of the immigration issue. The EU initially thought, “Well, the UK is leaving, but they are on their own. They are isolated. They have nowhere to go.” The EU can dictate to the UK what the conditions are for their leaving, and they’ll have to pay a lot of money. Then, Trump wins in the United States. All of a sudden, the UK is not alone. It has a friend and ally. Mrs. May came to the U.S. and Trump is in favour of Brexit.
He believes in the nation state. The EU, all of a sudden, sees that all the options are collapsing. They fear that the UK is much more powerful than they thought, because they are backed up by their friend. So, there’s an existential crisis in the EU about the question, “Can we survive all this?”
The EU crisis has created a conflict between north and south. It’s Germany and mainly the Mediterranean countries. The asylum problem has created conflict between east and west. Eastern European countries do not want to have asylum seekers, particularly not from the Muslim world. Germany, Sweden and so on have accepted many of them. They want to spread them now, but nobody wants to have them. There are huge crises happening in the EU. Again, it’s not because of Trump. He merely put his finger on the problem.
Will Le Pen End the EU?
Fujii: This year there will be national elections in some countries. Some people say that in France, Marine Le Pen, of the National Front, is likely to win the presidency. How do you see this situation?
Eppink: If there is a problem in Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland, that is negligible and manageable. France is a country of revolution. If France were to elect Ms. Le Pen, I think it will be the end of the EU as we know it now. It will also be the end of the Euro, because the French want to introduce their own currency. The Germans will be very angry. Nobody will be in agreement. It will be the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the World War I – something like that. It will collapse under its weight.
I think she will do very well in the first round perhaps. Then, all the others will gang up against her. They will mobilize their base against Le Pen, unless something dramatic happens. I think she will do very well, but the opposition to her will be bigger than those who support her.
Behind the Refugee Issue in Germany
Fujii: Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed many refugees to enter Germany. I think this is one of the major issues that the EU is currently facing. Do you think her decision was a good one?
Eppink: No. I think she’s going one election too far. She has invited many refugees to come to Germany. One million people came to Germany. The country could not cope with the consequences of all that. Now we see all the side effects of it. Many people who come from Islamic countries have a totally different culture. It is hard for them to adapt. There’s an increase in crime. Nobody knows what to do.
But because of World War II and the Holocaust, Germany wants to be morally good. It wants to be the humanitarian superpower – always morally right. That’s what the Germans have in their head. Because they want to pay for their guilt – “the guilt feeling” that they have been brainwashed with or taught in education over the years. Their national mentality is that they are guilty of World War II and the Holocaust. So they’ll do whatever it takes to help other people, even if they have to abolish themselves. There has been a backlash in Germany and Ms. Merkel has lost a lot of her authority.
Now, we’ll see who’s going to take over. She may stay on, but it will be very weak. Mr. Schultz, the new head of the SPD, the German social democrats, is running well. I know him very well from the European Parliament. He is an intelligent drill sergeant. Schultz, if he had lived in East Germany, would certainly have been one of the leaders without any doubt. He would have been very powerful. However, he was born in West Germany. He’s not a populist but he speaks the populist language. Wolfgang Schäuble, the Minister of Finance, already compared Schultz to Trump. There are many similarities between the two men. So, we’ll see how that will work out. Again, if things start to be shaken up in Germany, the main country in the centre of Europe, the EU will not survive.
“Germany First” Would Be Much Better
Fujii: Even though Germans are in the aftermath of World War II, do you think Germany should regain its political power?
Eppink: According to who has the most economic weight, Germany should assume more power. However, it’s very reluctant, because Germany wants to be regarded as a nice country with very friendly people. They want a world without power. A world with international rules, an international government, a climate policy, a completely green energy policy and so on. They live in this world which is always on the good side of history now. So, they are reluctant to assume power and get dirty hands. Germany will never do something on its own. It will always look for friends. Holland is a small country but very important as a friend of Germany. When the Germans are losing their self-confidence, we start talking to them. They look for some other countries that agree with them.
Fujii: I think Germany has great potential. I suppose that having more power would allow it to create more stability in Europe.
Eppink: If Germany had a policy based on its self-interest, it would have been much better off now. We would have had a smaller Eurozone, but a more cohesive one. Not with all the countries – perhaps seven or eight. In the Eurozone, the Germans set conditions for joining it. Countries like Italy did not qualify, but the Italians said, “We have to get in, you know.” So when the Italians come, the Greeks come in. Then, Cyprus wants to come in. They cannot say “nein”. That’s the problem with the Germans. They will always try to accommodate. But in the end, they are watering down the project they are working on.
The same applies to the asylum policy in which they simply invite everybody in, to the astonishment of all the other countries. Because they are effectively driven by guilt, not by reason and not by self-interest. So I would say, “Germany First” would have been much better than what they’re doing now.
Is Trump a Populist?
Fujii: It seems that the populism movement has similarities with Trump. He is against the establishment.
Eppink: Yes. It is the same thing. It’s the same with Brexit. What I said on the television in Belgium was “Listen. The European image of Trump is completely made by Nigel Farage.” I know Farage very well through the European Parliament. When he goes there, he’s welcomed as a guest by Trump. He talks to him. All the words I’ve heard him say in there, they now come out of the mouth of Trump. He is now a contributor to Fox News. So, where is he in the EU? Nowhere. They never wanted to admit the fact that Nigel Farage has so much influence, because he was a naughty man in Brussels.
Trump’s “Boxing” With the Media
Fujii: A few weeks ago, on the front cover of Der Spiegel, Trump was described as a kind of ISIS terrorist. What did you think of that?
Eppink: It showed that the Germans have no real idea what the United States is about. The idea behind this cartoon is that Trump, with a simple sword, would be able to decapitate American freedom. It is very deeply entrenched in the sentiments of the nation. The day he decides to close down CNN, it’s over. He would get strong opposition. So, he’s not doing that.
He quarrels with them, because he thinks they work against the people. He also refuses them, because he’s reassuring his base by saying, “Look. These are against me. Look at the New York Times. Look at CNN, then you’ll know.” So, the fact is that the New York Times and CNN, without really realizing, are strengthening the political base of Donald Trump. That’s why he’s doing this. He uses them in his ball game, because he’s a populist. He is a “wrestler” or a “boxer”. So, he thinks “This is my opponent, and I’m going to start boxing against them.” Even if they are not there, he will invent them. That’s how he works.
The Future of the EU
Fujii: I know you have decades of experience in the European Commission and the European Parliament. What do you expect for the future of the EU?
Eppink: First of all, the idea of the powerful European political entity is over. It is not possible to centralize everything. There should be a stop on this determination to drive bureaucratic centralism. That’s what it is.
Fujii: You mean a kind of super-government?
Eppink: A super government tries to centralize all forces by making the nation states redundant. The nation states cannot be made redundant. Some of these nation states are very powerful, like in Eastern Europe. Because they’ve just regained their independence from the Soviet Union. They are free countries now, so they’re very angry with Brussels. They regard Brussels as the new Moscow. Look at Poland, Hungary and so on.
The EU has the orthodoxy of the ever closer union. So all countries will come closer together and make one union, in which everybody is very happy. Because they are nationals in both nation state and Europe. If you try to do that, you’re ignoring history. It should have smaller institutions to keep European Corporation Ltd. to about five or six policy areas. It cannot have an asylum policy with open borders. That’s what we have now. It is impossible. So, that is the reformist side of it. That’s why I’m in favour of it.
Fujii: Thank you so much for the interview.