People hold placards during a 'Familes Belong Together' march and rally in Los Angeles, California, on June 30, 2018. Thousands of demonstrators marched across the US on Saturday to protest against the separation of families under President Donald Trump's hardline agenda. Photo: AFP/Frederic J. Brown

There is some irony that mass protests erupted across the United States in cities from Los Angeles to Boston and in state capitals against President Donald Trump’s immigration policies in the very same weekend that Europe decided on a controversial migration deal that in some ways emulates America’s.

It raises a hugely a consequential question: Is Trump re-defining transatlanticism rather than jettisoning it, as is commonly perceived?

The decision by the European Union leaders – belonging to ‘Old Europe’ – to create two-tiered disembarkation platforms both outside and within the continent’s borders may not involve the separation of children from their parents in the ‘refugee camps.’ But it broadly accepts the principle that Trump has espoused – that the US is not obliged to take on board all the human debris that washes ashore.

Europe hopes to give a ‘human touch’ that may alleviate its conscience by interacting with the countries of the Maghreb region and incentivizing them to keep the refugees away from European shores, and involve the United Nations agencies as ‘handlers.’

Harsh approach

The proposed creation of migration and resettlement centers outside the EU may not look as grotesque as Trump’s Mexican Wall or Australia’s harsh approach of holding unwanted migrants on islands such as Nauru and Manus in Papua New Guinea, in many cases for years, out of sight and largely forgotten. But the EU is essentially moving in the same direction that Trump is leading.

No doubt, the circumstances are strikingly similar, too. This populist approach fundamentally signifies the decline and collapse of the left, including the dissolution of the traditional working class. Democratic elections in Europe are increasingly turning into referendums on immigration and right-wing movements have skillfully exploited blue-collar voters’ fears, while social-democratic parties have suffered historic losses in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. This could have far-reaching consequences.

The proposed EU approach is a highly problematic one at the implementation stage with countries of central Europe openly dissociating from it. There’s little reason to hope for significant progress on the refugee issue, which in all likelihood won’t go away for a long time to come.

There’s no sign whatsoever of a political consensus emerging in the EU, either. Meanwhile, an “axis” between Austria, Italy and Germany could be emerging in European politics over time, which carries disturbing echoes of the past.

Trump and the ‘big picture’

Simply put, when European Union is disintegrating into its constituent parts, it is not only about the fate of Europe. Thus, today’s Russia seems quietly pleased with the rise of the xenophobic far right in Europe – perhaps, secretly anticipating a resulting power shift in its favor. It is quite apparent that Russia is pinning its hopes on the far-right political trajectory of Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, etc – and possibly, of Germany as well in a near future.

To be sure, Trump is keeping a strategic distance but seems to have the ‘big picture,’ as his recent moves suggest – starting from the bolt out of the blue with the kite-flying on the resuscitation of the G8; scheduling his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which he always wanted; dispatching National Security Advisor John Bolton to Moscow, and Bolton speculating on the possibility of Trump attending the Eastern Economic Forum summit in Vladivostok in September; bilateral talks on energy cooperation with Russia; deputing a team of Republican lawmakers to Russia on a ‘reconnaissance mission’; collaboration with Russia in regard to containing tensions over Southwest Syria; and, increasingly hinting that the future of Crimea needn’t be a sticking point in US-Russia relations.

Russia will keenly watch the outcome of the NATO summit in Brussels on July 11-12 just before the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki on July 16. European officials have confirmed the media leak – first reported by Axios last week – regarding Trump’s inflammatory remarks made in private at the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this month that NATO is “as bad as Nafta,” the North American free trade agreement the US president openly despises.

According to BuzzFeed, Trump told leaders at the G7 summit that Crimea was Russian land because everyone there speaks Russian. And Trump confirmed that he’s sent letters to several NATO members cautioning them about not meeting their spending commitments. AFP listed Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands as having received individual letters that were personally signed by Trump.

Suffice to say, European leaders fear that at the forthcoming NATO summit, Trump may even call the alliance’s purpose into question. Yet such anxiety over NATO’s future is overwrought because it is also the case that Trump is actually spending far more on the alliance than his predecessor Barack Obama did, and has increased its investment in the defense of Europe.

The crux of the matter is that the European project is floundering for other reasons as well, with the refugee crisis having turned into a sword of Damocles hanging over it alongside the trade issues. Trump counsels that European countries would be far better off by negotiating bilateral trade deals with the US. He spelled out the bottom line on Wednesday: “We love the countries of the European Union. But the European Union was set up to take advantage of the United States.”

Meanwhile, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Trump hopes to pick out ‘born-again’ European countries. He can already count Austria, Italy, Hungary, Slovenia, etc in his ideological comfort zone.