Sleepless in Europe: Implications of Trump’s Victory

The following is a longer article that I wrote for the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Europe. You can find the original here.

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The last time a vote of historic proportions took place, I went to bed thinking catastrophe might just be averted. The next morning, I woke to a changed Europe; the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. This time, I stayed up all night fearing the worst. As dawn broke, I went to sleep in a changed world; Donald Trump is US President-elect.

For months we have been witness to an election campaign that has brought out the worst in people, one defined by populism, elitism, egotism, sexism and racism. This has uncovered a country riven with deep societal wounds: the Disunited States of America.

Donald Trump positioned himself as the election’s change agent from the right, channelling the rage against the political machine. He was the outsider who rallied the disenfranchised, disempowered and disillusioned. They decided, better the devil we don’t know than the Clinton we know. He tapped into the defining American impulse for freedom and bastardised it. Not only did he promise to break free from the establishment and political correctness, in his rallies he also shook off long-established social codes, and with them decency and civility. In doing so, he gave credence to the words of the American novelist Marilynne Robinson that ‘no society is at any time immune to moral catastrophe’.

This isn’t just an American story – it’s a global story, it’s a European story. It’s the new Zeitgeist. Autocratic, ‘strong man’ politicians and parties have become the vanguard against the establishment and globalisation, in the words of American political scientist Mark Lilla, to ‘Make X Great Again’. It’s Trump, not Trudeau. Orban, not Obama. Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Kaczynski – the list is growing. Former fringe parties and candidates are becoming mainstream, while the centre ground is slowly crumbling. Since 1990, the share of the vote held by the centre left and centre right has fallen by 12%.

The US election result is a populist wake-up call for the European Union, and it’s not its first. The alarm has been ringing for years: Hungary’s slide into illiberal democracy, the increased popularity of far-right parties in the European elections, backsliding on women’s rights and the rule of law in Poland, Brexit. Too often, though, the EU has hit the snooze button and finally woken up without a clue of what to do, or found itself in political gridlock. This has not been helped by the fact that, as in Washington D.C. in recent years, Brussels is plagued by political dysfunction. The European Union and its Member States have failed to implement the planned financial transaction tax, to fight tax havens, to agree on a system to manage the inflow of refugees, to advance sustainable debt relief for Greece…. The list goes on. In a world that is burning, the EU’s ‘leaky bucket’ efforts to quell the flames have unsurprisingly inspired little confidence. As a result, right-wing populist, left-wing populist, anti-EU parties are in the ascendant and the forces of disintegration are on the march inside the European Union.

Last week Wednesday, while millions of Europeans looked across the pond in disbelief and dismay, there were clearly also those who celebrated the bloody nose Trump gave the establishment. Far-right leaders such as Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands and Strache in Austria rejoiced over Trump’s victory. Europe’s populists hope that it will give them increased momentum in a number of crucial elections – in particular the referendum on constitutional reform in Italy, the re-run of the Austrian presidential election in December, and the general elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany in 2017. But how will Trump’s win, and the way the election campaign was conducted, actually affect politics in the EU?

Trump’s playbook – a European translation?

Populist parties in EU Member States will study Trump’s (and Farage’s) methods very closely. They are likely to continue the march of post-truth politics – appealing to emotion over fact, making outrageous statements that will provide cash-poor populists with media coverage. German right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has already admitted that it makes contemptible, outrageous statements to gain media attention, allowing it to dominate the political narrative. Likewise, it aims to discredit traditional media outlets as simple pro-establishment propaganda machines. Like Trump, who baptised CNN the ‘Clinton News Network’ and accused the media of pro-Clinton bias, the AfD and others deride the classical media networks as Lügenpresse (lying press). Simultaneously, populists are building and advancing their own media brands. The Breitbart News Network, the so-called voice of Donald Trump’s campaign, has already announced that it will expand its European operations from the UK into France and Germany.

With a little help from friends…

Foreign interference in European elections is also likely to be an increasingly important factor. The US electoral campaign showed the havoc caused by leaks and hacked e-mails. It is undeniable that Russia played a role in this. The Kremlin is not only funding ‘insurgent’ parties, it is also engaging in information warfare for their benefit. At a recent press conference, Chancellor Merkel confirmed that Germany ‘is currently having to deal […] with internet attacks that are of Russian origin, or with news which sows false information’. A case in point is the alleged abduction and rape of a Russian-German girl by asylum seekers which was reported in the Russian media. Although subsequently found by the German police to be without grounds, these reports and the Russian authorities’ subsequent accusation of a cover-up led to anti-migrant protests by the country’s large Russian minority at a very sensitive time.

A Brave New World: foreign policy under Donald Trump and the EU

To paraphrase Eminem: ‘Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?’ Naturally, it’s hard to predict the extent to which candidate Trump will be President Trump – you can’t study the script of an improv act. Already Trump is sounding more conciliatory ranging from his victory speech to his latest remarks on Obamacare. But, leaving aside his flip-flopping, demagoguery and the question of whether transatlanticist Republicans would be able to manage him, he has stuck to one consistent, albeit raw, foreign policy approach: ‘America First’. US interests will be front and centre. Consequently, if he sticks to this, he is likely to pursue a purely self-interested transactional ‘the Art of the Deal’ foreign policy.

The possible contours of such a Trump scenario throw all of the United States’ commitments and guarantees around the world into doubt. Everything could be up for negotiation, shaking the transatlantic alliance to its foundations and changing the very nature of the West. It puts the international order into a black box. Under such a policy, the United States would no longer be the guardian of the global rules-based liberal order. It would leave the West rudderless in uncharted waters. Great uncertainty now hangs over the world’s many theatres of crisis, ranging from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

While US estrangement from Europe isn’t particularly new, this would be a historic break. The Bush administration didn’t particularly invest in the transatlantic alliance and instead divided the continent into New Europe and Old Europe. President Obama, similarly, showed little interest in the EU. A Pacific-oriented president, he pushed forward the pivot towards Asia and downgraded the transatlantic alliance. In 2011, former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates ominously declared that there is a ‘real possibility for a dim, if not dismal, future for the transatlantic alliance’. That future seems to be now.

Trump’s break with 70 years of US guarantees is a watershed moment. He has made no commitments to the transatlantic alliance, to NATO or to the defence of the Baltics. NATO in particular has been weakened not only by Donald Trump’s position but also by the authoritarian putsch that recently took place in Turkey. There are cracks appearing in the European security umbrella through which Russia is becoming increasingly visible. The Kremlin is being emboldened by the lack of American leadership and Trump’s refusal to make commitments. A Russian government spokesman has already suggested that Trump scale back NATO deployments to improve relations. It is also telling that, more or less on the same day that he sent a congratulatory telegram to Trump on his election victory, Putin said that he was ready to restore a dialogue with Poland. Now that feelings of insecurity and uncertainty have increased in the capitals of the Baltics and Central and Eastern Europe, Putin approaches them – from a position of strength – to offer talks.

Following his transactional approach, it is likely that a Trump administration would explore a grand deal with Russia on Ukraine. This could take the form of requesting Russia’s withdrawal from eastern Ukraine in return for the recognition of the annexation of Crimea, and guarantees that NATO would not expand to include Ukraine. Any such overtures would endanger European sanctions against Russia, which are already under pressure from many social democrats. Many EU Member States, but in particular the Baltic countries, would be extremely concerned by such a development. To what extent, or rather for what price, might President Trump open the door for such deals and leave countries such as Estonia – ‘the suburbs of St Petersburg’ according to ally Newt Gingrich – to Russia? Such deals and negotiations would lead to a return to ‘spheres of privileged interests’ and encourage brinkmanship and showmanship in the game for the best deal.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach also presents serious challenges in other policy fields. Nuclear proliferation could accelerate, the Iran deal could unravel, and the spectre of a global trade war looms, with Trump promising to slap more, higher tariffs on Chinese products and label China a currency manipulator. Also, given his criticism for trade deals, the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is, for better or for worse, if not dead then at least on ice. President Juncker has already said that he doesn’t see TTIP materialising in the next two years. On the climate front, the European Union will also face difficulties. Donald Trump has tweeted that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hurt American industry. His energy transition team is stacked with oil lobbyists and climate change sceptics, and he has vowed to exit the Paris Agreement.

Europe’s foreign strategy for Trump: engage, mitigate and lead

Trump is a rule-breaker in a rules-based order. He is also likely to seek to divide the EU Member States and play them off against each other. They mustn’t let him. The European Union must have a strategy in place. It was the right call for German Foreign Minister Steinmeier and the Commission to insist on a special meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on Sunday to discuss the implications of the US elections for Europe, and it is more than a disappointment that the Foreign Ministers of France and the UK decided not to attend. As Europe’s largest military powers, it would have been necessary to have them at the table, when discussing Trump’s implications for Europe and European security. But while French Foreign Minister Ayrault had an excuse (he was meeting the UN Secretary-General), it’s clear that Foreign Secretary Johnson simply wants to ride the elevator alone in Trump Tower.

A European strategy must be built on three interlinked features: engagement, mitigation, leadership.

First and foremost, European leaders cannot wait for Trump to make up his mind by himself. They need to engage with him in unison and lay down their concerns and interests. Presidents Tusk and Juncker have already taken the opportunity to invite Donald Trump to Brussels for an EU-US Summit at his earliest convenience. But this mustn’t lead to unnecessary temporising. Until such a possible summit, the time needs to be used to create links with the new Trump administration, reach out to Republicans, and promote track II diplomacy. This will help to gain a better understanding of the incoming presidency and shape its thinking and personnel on Europe. Obama’s visit to Germany should be a valuable opportunity to hear his views on the matter. Likewise, different contacts and forums need to be utilised – be it US ambassadors in Europe, NATO, the OSCE and particularly bilateral contacts and visits. European leaders should also reach out and visit the US. If Prime Minister Theresa May, or any other EU head of state or government, visits the US soon, they should make sure to debrief their European counterparts with regard to foreign and security issues on their return. And a special responsibility lies with Mogherini to quickly establish working relations with the upcoming US Secretary of State. Trump has had conversations with a number of European leaders following his victory, but the person with whom he has spent most time so far appears to be UKIP leader Nigel Farage. European leaders shouldn’t let that stand.

The EU also needs to mitigate the possible worst consequences of the Trump presidency. That means accepting as a starter, as President Juncker said, that ‘the US will not forever take care of our security. We need to do it ourselves’. Europe needs to come together in the sensitive field of defence. To quote Abraham Lincoln, ‘A divided house cannot stand’. The EU needs to further develop its Global Strategy and reinforce its security architecture. That means boldly moving forward with a European Defence Union and employing the various different options available under the Lisbon Treaty, such as Permanent Structured Cooperation, to advance a common European defence agenda, for example by pooling and sharing military assets, procurement, R&D, putting in place a European Semester for defence, and so on. It means advancing military and defence cooperation with its northern neighbour Norway and exploring it with the UK in the context of Brexit.

Thirdly, as wishful as it might sound, the European Union needs to increase international leadership. We now live in a ‘no (wo)man’s world’ – a ‘G-0’ as coined by Ian Bremmer from the Eurasia Foundation. The vacuum Trump might leave needs to be filled. That means building alliances, for example with regional organisations such as ASEAN to help manage the South China Sea, with powers such as China, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, by building coalitions on issues such as the global commons (climate change, management of the high seas, cybersecurity, space policy, etc.), by establishing and investing in formats to mitigate conflict such as the Normandy format or the P5+1 effort on Iran, and by shoring up global institutions such as the OSCE and UN.

Of course, it could all end up differently. There is the off-chance that Trump will leave behind the Trump of the past and now become presidential. But that’s wishful thinking and not something to base a policy on. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

For an open, progressive movement that connects the struggles

Last but not least, European democrats and progressives need to draw lessons from America’s election result. There are two hard facts that confront us.

First fact: the populists are winning. They are becoming the agent of change because they empower people who feel disempowered. Progressives have been fighting amazing battles for minority rights and gender equality, and have made major cultural progress. But somewhere along that line, we forgot about those that felt left behind and disempowered, who have started to feel like politics isn’t about them any longer. Too often these people have then also been treated with resentment. This needs to be addressed if we wish to overcome the current social divisions.

It means listening to and engaging with the people that feel left behind economically, socially and particularly culturally. US opinion poll analysts FiveThirtyEight illustrate the culture gap by comparing which American counties with organic supermarket Whole Foods and which with Southern-themed restaurant Cracker Barrel voted for Trump: Trump won 76 per cent of counties with a Cracker Barrel and 22 per cent with a Whole Foods. That’s a 54 per cent gap compared to 19 per cent in the 1992 election.

Not everyone who voted Trump is a sexist or a racist. If those people will not be heard by progressives, then they will be heard by the Trumps of this world. If progressives do not open up and engage with people that think differently, then they are creating the very conditions in which demagogues like Donald Trump can thrive, and are contributing to the problem. Shaming and labelling people isn’t going to change their minds; it’s just going keep them silent in the opinion polls until that silent majority steps inside the polling booth and then exercises its right to vote Trump.

Second fact: the autocratic populists are an international movement. Putin helps Trump emboldens Le Pen and the downward spiral continues. Progressives are fighting many separate battles and campaigns but have no common, transatlantic movement. It’s really crucial to connect the different struggles – the divestment campaign, the campaign for the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, workers’ rights campaigns such as fighting precarious jobs at Amazon and the pitfalls of digitalisation, protests against the Keystone, North Dakota and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, campaigns for indigenous rights, environmental and social movements, human rights campaigns, literary movements, the Black cultural revival in the US as so well demonstrated by the novelist Ta-Nehisi Coates and musician Robert Glasper – and by doing so build a progressive narrative of change. These transatlantic and intra-European bridges need building. It also means engaging with young people in a transatlantic context. The millennials have mostly lost out in each election so far. They are not coming out en masse to vote and the decisions taken, such as Brexit, are against their own immediate interests. It’s a baby boomer backlash.

The US and the UK, the world’s two most open and liberal countries, have just voted to close off their societies. Hate crime levels in these countries have increased. Europe must fight the forces that wish to retreat into a populist cocoon. Now is the time to go out and engage, discuss and convince, change and be the change you want to see, build bridges and a movement that doesn’t stay still. It’s following the spirit of Winston Churchill: gather your strength for dawn, for the dawn shall come. The alternative is more sleepless nights in Europe.

The Return of Europe’s Nation-States: A Response

This month’s edition of Foreign Affairs features a strongly anti-EU piece by Jakub Grygiel (“The return of Europe’s Nation-States: The Upside to the EU’s Crisis”), a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. In his article, Grygiel argues that citizens are disillusioned with the European Union and that the EU has failed. He claims that a return to newly assertive nation states is necessary to master the continent’s pressing security challenges.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that a return to the nation state is the answer to the problems the EU is facing. But there is no wall high or wide enough to insulate a country from the globalised challenges we are facing. As recently noted by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, “in the twenty-first century, the turn away from cooperation and integration amounts to burying one’s head in the sand and hoping the dangers will pass.” It was exactly a lack of coordination between national intelligence services that facilitated terrorist strikes, and it was many years of neglect and lacking solidarity that worsened the refugee crisis. Instead, EU Member States need to cooperate better.

Mr Grygiel, for example, believes that European nation states would do a better job on their own checking Russia, but how? Europe’s sanctions against Moscow would be the first victim of a return to nation states. China’s and Russia’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics would flourish in such an environment. Germany would happily continue to conduct bilateral energy deals with Gazprom, to the detriment of Central and Eastern Europe, without EU legislation binding its hands.

Furthermore, recalling Senator Moynihan, Mr Grygiel is of course entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Public opinion polls show support for the EU. According to Eurobarometer, citizens consistently trust EU institutions over their own national governments. After the historic Brexit vote, support for the EU actually increased in a number of Member States, particularly Germany. A recent annual survey of the World Economic Forum also highlighted that only 13% of European millennials identify primarily with their nation state, while over 50% see themselves as either global or European citizens.

What the European Union needs is neither ever more integration, nor a complete return to the nation state as supported by Mr Grygiel. Instead, flexibility is key, allowing for different types of deepening integration. EU Member States have an arsenal of integration models at their disposal. They can advance “enhanced cooperation” between groups of Member States or they can use Permanent Structured Cooperation under Article 46 of the Treaty of the EU, as is currently being debated with regards to creating a Defence Union. Options for different forms of integration exist and need to be used.

Quoting the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Mr Grygiel argues that individual countries will provide the kind of safety that Brussels can’t. Well, let me return the favour with another Niebuhr quote: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.”

Where does the EU go from here? The upcoming Bratislava Summit

It is clear that after the UK’s historic decision to leave the European Union, the EU could no longer dodge the question that’s been increasingly on everybody’s lips: What is to be done? The EU is facing its deepest crisis with doubts about its very purpose emerging through the cracks. The forces of disintegration are on the rise. What’s the turnaround strategy that will bring Europe forward and renew confidence in this unique project? What’s the post-Brexit European narrative?

Following the UK referendum, confusion and disarray reigned supreme. The Brexiteers had no plan in case of Brexit, but neither did the EU institutions. No concrete ideas on the way forward for the EU after such a result were presented. Mogherini’s Global Strategy came closest in charting some course. Instead, there was scaremongering, flip-flopping, and calls for Commission President Juncker’s resignation.

Only after the dust started to settle and shock gave way to sober analysis did action follow. Now European leaders will meet in Bratislava on 16 September to flesh out a plan for the future of Europe post-Brexit. In the meantime, an array of actors has come out with position papers, interviews and political lines in attempts to set the agenda. Some are new, some are old, and some is just old wine in new bottles. A confrontation is emerging on two fronts. First, on the governance of the European Union and second on which policy areas should be the ones where the EU drives forward, achieves results, regains relevance and wins back confidence from its citizens.

The former is an old debate regarding the balance of power between EU institutions and governance models. It’s about “more” or “less” Europe, pitting federalism against intergovernmentalism. The social-democratic camp came out early in this one. European Parliament President Martin Schulz and German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel co-published a paper calling for more integration and a federal Europe with a bicameral European government. A rather unrealistic proposition given the current situation. Others used the opportunity to highlight the importance of a two-speed Europe where a core – such as for example the founding Member States or Eurozone – move forward with integration leaving others behind. And then there are the voices, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, calling for a re-nationalisation of European policy. Polish President Beata Szydło, for example, sees “the need to strengthen national control over EU decision making processes” and the Marshal of the Polish Sejm stated in a declaration that “the coexistence and cooperation in Europe should be based on sovereignty of nation states”.

German Finance Minister Schäuble also weighed in to this debate, declaring that if the European Commission can’t get things done the Member States will take matters into their own hands. Laying blame for lacking progress on the European Commission’s doorstep, however, is hypocritical. It’s the EU Member States in the European Council themselves that most often cannot come to an agreement and thereby halt progress! Schäuble is disingenuous when he refers to the Eurozone crisis or the Turkey deal as examples of intergovernmentalism where the Member States took charge, solving problems. It wasn’t the Member States; it was Germany. It was a domineering Berlin that forced its deals onto others. This is what led to divisions and bad blood amongst the Member States.

In such a crisis where the core of the European project is in doubt, the Member States should especially show solidarity and walk together in lockstep. But this is not happening. Instead, Member States are descending into bloc politics. After Brexit, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier invited only Foreign Ministers of EU founding members for consultation to Berlin, snubbing the rest. The Central and Eastern European bloc is coordinating its position for the Bratislava Summit with the Visegrad Group of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia planning to publish a joint contribution beforehand. And the southern axis is coming together too: Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has invited his counterparts from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta to a summit in Athens on 9 September. Meanwhile, the three largest voting members in the European Council – Germany, France and Italy – have met at Ventotene on 22 August to discuss Bratislava.

Of course coordination before this important Bratislava Summit is necessary. But the question to me is rather, which format is more likely to unite rather than divide, on the road towards Bratislava? A strategic centre of Member States is needed that is small enough for conducive debate but representative enough to cover all Member States. Teaming up with Presidents Renzi and Hollande, Chancellor Merkel has tried to form such a centre between Germany, France and Italy. But this constellation is woefully lacking Central and Eastern Europe, forcing Merkel on a whirlwind tour of meetings with Member States (14 Member States in one week). Forming a Quartet together with Poland, which holds the current Presidency of the Visegrad Group, would have ensured that this region is also represented. It could have brought EU Member States better together before Bratislava. To quote Lyndon B. Johnson: “It’s probably better to have them inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in”.

And Member States are coming together in bloc politics to push forward the policy issues important to them, which brings me to the second front I highlighted earlier. The South is rallying to achieve progress on economic growth, investment, fighting austerity while Central and Eastern Europe is focusing on the refugee issue, reinforcing borders and strengthening national sovereignty.

The Ventotene meeting on 22 August between Merkel, Renzi and Hollande showcased the splits and highlighted some of the issues that could come into play in Bratislava. Issues raised were external/internal security, youth, refugees and economic growth/investment. Little was reached on the last two while on youth it was agreed to expand the Erasmus student exchange programme also to apprenticeships. Only the issue of external/internal security had broad agreement. Generally, this much anticipated meeting was hyped up beyond proportion. After all the three weren’t going to announce some ambitious proposals ahead of the Bratislava Summit, as this would have simply strained ties with the other 24 Member States. As such, Ventotene was largely symbolic with the three laying flowers at the tomb of Altiero Spinelli, who wrote the Ventotene Manifesto calling for a federation of European states to prevent nationalism from sparking war. The meeting seemed to be very much geared towards domestic consumption, intended to bolster support for Renzi who will be facing his own referendum on constitutional reform this October.

In the context of Ventotene, it seems that the most likely progress at the Bratislava Summit will be a declaration to move forward in the area of security and defence. An agreement in this area seems clear as I highlighted in an earlier blog post. Mogherini’s Global Strategy laid groundwork for this, the French and German Foreign Ministers also called for more integration on security and defence, as did the Italian Foreign and Defence Ministers in an op-ed in Le Monde, and Central and Eastern European Member States would also be in favour with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka having recently declared that he hopes the Bratislava Summit will bring progress on a joint military. In addition, Russian military aggression in Ukraine has also made the Nordic countries more willing to co-operate on defence issues, with Sweden and Finland raising security through defence collaboration agreements with the United States.

Pushing the EU forward in the nexus external-internal security is important. It’s an area where the EU can and must deliver. It should show that the EU provides security to Member States and its citizens, an elementary requirement given that in the context of a world in flames ranging from Libya and Syria to Ukraine and homegrown terrorism, ever more people ask whether the Union can provide security.

But I fear that this won’t be enough. Discontent with the EU isn’t merely based on fears about ISIS or geopolitics. It’s also about globalisation, feelings of being left behind, economic insecurity and social inequality – it’s about pocketbook issues. Here the EU needs to provide answers, too, lest it find itself portrayed as the cause of such malaise. This means boosting investments, strengthening the social pillar of the EU, making progress on fighting tax evasion, and tackling youth unemployment. Especially the last is crucial. Youth still feels great affection for the EU as evidenced in the UK referendum, but the EU is at risk of losing its youth if they don’t see any future prospects or have a stake in the EU. An open letter signed by prominent societal actors and politicians rightly made this point recently in Die Welt calling for a strengthening of the European Youth Guarantee, a revision of Erasmus to an Erasmus for all, and developing a common school curriculum on European culture.

On the road towards Bratislava, progress is on the horizon. But more is needed. As it stands, it is doubtful, whether the EU Member States will be able to overcome their divisions. This will make the next half year especially tough with further challenges ahead: a possible renewed refugee influx as Syria’s bloodbath continues, winter is approaching and the Turkey refugee deal hangs in the balance, a presidential vote in Austria between a far-right politician and a Green, a referendum in Italy, a volatile Ukraine, and so on.

Is Europe falling into the ISIS playbook?

Expressions of unity, strength and support followed the atrocious attack against the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. Europe’s political leaders marched together, millions of people demonstrated solidarity declaring Je suis Charlie. Instead of bringing France to her knees as the terrorists had hoped, they had brought France to her feet. Citizens all across Europe, particularly in France, rose to the occasion countering hatred with hope and confidence. But this is changing and our communication strategies and narrative to counter ISIS are partly to blame.

From Paris and Brussels to Nice and Würzburg, that hope and confidence is fading. The frequency and horror of these terrorist attacks has continuously hammered away at society. When one person can do so much damage at such public places, everybody feels affected and threatened. Hate is starting to gain on hope. A spectre of hate crime and counter-attacks against Muslim communities is emerging. A European Kristallnacht against Muslims is no longer an unthinkable scenario.

In France, Muslims have been harassed at the Nice commemoration and some citizens have vented their anger by spitting and throwing trash on the spot where the lone-wolf terrorist, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, had been shot. Patrick Calvar, France’s domestic intelligence chief, has recently told a closed-door parliamentary hearing that there will soon be “a confrontation between the extreme right and the Muslim world…one or two more attacks, and it will happen”. In Germany, the country that proudly stood for welcoming refugees, more than 200 refugee homes have been burned or otherwise attacked over the last year. In the United Kingdom, there had been more than 3.000 allegations of hate crime in the weeks of its Brexit referendum as populists, such as Nigel Farage, blamed foreigners for Britain’s woes.

A latest Pew survey of ten EU Member States published a few days prior to the attack in Nice, substantiates this worrying trend. Six in ten EU Member States have an unfavourable view of Muslims. In eight out of ten more than half of the respondents believe refugees increase the probability of a terrorist attack. And in seven out of ten EU Member States, views towards Muslims have become more unfavourable compared to last year. A median of only 18 per cent believe that ethnic, cultural and ethnic diversity is a benefit to their country. Each new attack is likely to add to these developments.

Our politics are failing. Each new attack questions the ability of the political establishment to deal with terrorism, in turn strengthening far-right political parties such as the Front National or the Alternative für Deutschland. EU Member States have been unable to agree to a permanent effort-sharing system for dealing with the refugee influx, again sending a certain message of helplessness.

Communication strategies are particularly using a war rhetoric, which tends to feed fear and feelings of insecurity, worsening the situation. President Hollande has called the November 2015 attack an “act of war” and after Nice France’s Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, called on all “patriotic citizens” to join the reserve police force. Asking citizens to fill the ranks of the police, does not exactly inspire confidence.

All of this, however, can tear at the very social fabric of society. It plays directly into the strategy of Islamic State. Europe and especially France are in danger of falling into the ISIS game plan. By following a rhetoric that emphasises a war with Islamic State and allows a picture of France under siege and the enemy at the European gates to arise, feelings of insecurity persist and contempt towards Muslim communities increases. It is that very contempt that feeds the ISIS narrative. This downward spiral, where only Islamic State can benefit, must be broken.

European governments shouldn’t allow each successful lone-wolf terrorist attack to be claimed as an ISIS victory. A pattern is emerging that many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were emotionally unstable, disconnected from society, extremely narcissistic and looking for a greater purpose in their life. As asserted by Professor Olivier Roy, a leading expert on political Islam, many of these lone-wolf perpetrators were petty criminals that didn’t undergo a radicalisation of Islam but rather an Islamisation of radicality. They are already drawn to radicalism and Islamic State offers them a heroic narrative and purpose to go with it. In the words of Robert Pape, founding director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, ISIS makes “an appeal to the individual’s sense of self” and “let’s angry men with oversize egos identify with the group…and eventually use the tool kit of Islamic State to carry out their own violent agendas”. With this interpretation in mind, the lone-wolf acts of terror shouldn’t be seen as part of a war with ISIS nor primarily focus on Islam. Mr Pape, for example, notes how a US campaign to paint Islamic State as un-Islamic was particularly unsuccessful. Instead, it must perforate the “hero’s image” and make it unattractive by showing that these lone-wolf perpetrators are nothing more but unhinged petty criminals that won’t be remembered in posterity. Such a narrative would have a dual benefit of deterring future potential lone-wolf terrorists while simultaneously not putting religion front and centre thereby not increasing fears in society about Muslim communities.

Europe is walking down a slippery slope of populism and increasing xenophobia. The focus on fighting Islamic State and using war-like rhetoric is feeding this trend. Of course ISIS must be fought but we shouldn’t allow each terrorist attack to be claimed by ISIS or frame it into the narrative of ISIS – it makes this wretched organisation bigger than it is. A new narrative should emerge. Nice shouldn’t be a reminder of Islamic State. It should be a reminder of why Bastille Day is celebrated – because it represents the spirit of unity, the rights of man and woman, of liberté, egalité, fraternité.