How Donald Trump Might Save the E.U.

It now looks as if America, once again, will be Europe’s savior. Some Europeans support Mr. Trump’s retreat from his country’s traditional allies and others hate it, but both groups are made nervous by what they have witnessed in the first month of the new administration. Mr. Trump frightens Europeans not because of his willingness to build walls (Europe is ahead of him on this front), and not because Europeans are besotted with globalization (many of them hate it). He alarms Europeans because he is President Chaos. He is like a character out of a children’s book — the one who jumped on his horse and galloped in all directions at once.

But what might make Mr. Trump the savior of the European Union is not only the resentment he provokes among the risk-averse middle classes but also the radicalizing effect his victory is having on populist parties here. Long before the American election, populists were ascendant in Europe. In several countries they succeeded in attracting a sizable number of votes by swerving to the political center. They thus became, for some, a viable alternative to the status quo.

But since Mr. Trump’s victory, his European soul mates have ditched that approach and decided to re-radicalize and imitate his campaign’s winning strategy. They jettisoned their hard-earned moderation and returned to an angrier tone and more apocalyptic worldview. Ms. Le Pen was overnight transformed from a compassionate radical into a holy warrior against the two “totalitarianisms” of our time, Islamism and globalization.

The electoral defeat of Norbert Hofer, the Austrian far right’s candidate, in the presidential election in December, is perhaps the best example of the Trump effect on European politics. Mr. Trump’s victory made the European far right more aggressive and arrogant, while at the same time reducing the willingness of undecided voters to take a chance on radical alternatives.

In the same way that Barack Obama’s hosannas to the European Union did not assist its supporters, Mr. Trump’s anti-European Union rhetoric does no favors to the populists. European elites are taking this moment to champion Europeans’ independence and speak on behalf of their national interest. Thus Mr. Trump’s revolution provides space for a European Union-friendly nationalism.

Until recently, it was the far right and the far left that questioned the European Union’s dependence on the United States. Now it’s pro-Europeans pushing for a European army and an independent European foreign policy. In an open letter delivered to the leaders of the 27 member states last month, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, defined Mr. Trump’s America as an existential threat to the European Union alongside Russia, China and radical Islam.

Moreover, what makes 2017 different from last year and why the European Union has a good chance of survival is that the public’s expectations have changed. Now we are not only convinced that the unthinkable can become actual (Brexit, President Trump), but we expect it to do so. We are waiting for Geert Wilders to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands. We assume that Ms. Le Pen will be the next president of France. And we even speculate that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure in Germany could come to an end.

All that may still happen — but most likely it won’t. Avoiding the worst, though, might just provide new, badly needed political energy to the European project. History teaches us that in times of crisis, survival is the ultimate source of legitimacy. It will be the European Union’s ability to survive in 2017 rather than its ability to reform itself that might persuade Europeans that unity is not over.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 21, 2017, on Page A12, in The International New York Times.

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