Europe’s populist right predicted Donald Trump’s entry into the White House will herald the end of the old way of doing business in the west, as the continent’s leaders wrestled with how to deal with the new president.
Anti-establishment politicians including Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front in France, and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party echoed the combative language of the new US president’s inaugural address at a celebratory rally in Koblenz, western Germany, on Saturday while Chancellor Angela Merkel was trying to reassure her supporters at a meeting in the country’s industrial heartland.
Le Pen and her allies are spearheading the most sustained challenge to Europe’s status quo since the end of the Cold War, with the continent facing elections this year in Germany, France and the Netherlands. While a meeting of the populist right would once have been dismissed as a sideshow, Trump’s unexpected rise and the UK’s decision to leave the EU in last year’s referendum have focused investors’ concerns on the where the next threat to the European Union project might emerge.
“The first major hit on the old order was Brexit,” Le Pen told a couple of hundred cheering supporters in Koblenz’s conference center. EU countries will soon “leave the prison of Europe,” she predicted, branding Merkel’s decision to let almost a million migrants into Germany last year “a catastrophe.” Trump himself has called the move “a catastrophic mistake.”
Hammering on the key themes of her election campaign, Le Pen said every member of the euro area must have the possibility of leaving and that the shared currency is “destroying” the French economy. The latest opinion polls suggest the nationalist leader could win the most votes in the first round of France’s presidential election on April 23, though no one has projected she would win the runoff two weeks later.
Though Merkel chose to visit an art gallery near Berlin rather than follow Friday’s inauguration live, she has been poring over old interviews and video of Trump, seeking clues on how to influence him when they first meet, according to two people familiar with her preparations.
Trump “made his convictions clear” in his inaugural speech, Merkel told reporters at a conference of her party in Baden-Wuerttemberg, insisting that the trans-Atlantic relationship ”won’t be less important in the coming years than in the past.”
In his Friday speech, Trump said he would be putting “America first” in all his dealings with other nations, and portrayed the US, the world’s biggest economy and its dominant military power, as a nation ravaged by the consequences of weak borders, unbalanced alliances and bad trade deals.
“For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry, subsidized the armies of other countries, while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military,” the president said. “We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
Merkel, a Christian Democrat who has led Europe’s biggest economy for more than 11 years, is running for a fourth term as chancellor in September. She’s trying to fend off a challenge from the anti-European Alternative for Germany, which has risen to third place in the polls by channeling discontent with her immigration policy.
“We must have the courage to rethink Europe and Europe’s freedom,” Frauke Petry, co-leader of the AfD, said in her speech in Koblenz.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will become the first foreign leader to meet the new president as soon as next week, according to reports in UK newspapers. May said in an interview with the Financial Times that she expects “very frank” talks and that she’ll stress her desire for a strong Europe as well as a proposed UK-US trade deal.
As May tries to restructure Britain’s relationships with the world’s two biggest markets, the US and the EU, Europe’s populists are trying to harness the power of the Brexit vote and the Trump victory to drive a broader revolt against the establishment.
‘Patriots’ of Europe
Both Wilders and Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League, congratulated Trump on his rise to power in Koblenz.
“We live in historical times — the people of the West are awakening,” Wilders said. “They want their freedom back, they want their sovereign nations back, and we, the patriots of Europe, will be their instrument of liberation.”
Wilders’s anti-Islam, anti-EU party may win the most seats in Dutch parliamentary elections on March 15 though his chances of becoming prime minister are limited, as he’s likely to be far short of an outright majority and almost all of the other major parties have ruled out coalitions with his party.
Sponsored by the Europe of Nations and Freedom group of parties, the populists’ rally was held in a city known for a monument to Prussian king, William I, who was crowned emperor of a united Germany in 1871 after his army defeated France. Nowadays, the statue serves as a symbol of Germany’s peaceful east-west reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall.