Monday, 20 February 2017

A Canada-EU alliance is forming against a Russia-US-UK axis

Simultaneous visits to the EU by Justin Trudeau and Mike Pence reveal the ideological rift that is rapidly tearing the West apart.

If Mike Pence was expecting a warm welcome in Brussels today, he will have been unpleasantly surprised. The arrival of the US vice-president was greeted with protests from citizens on the streets and scowls from European Union lawmakers, in scenes reminiscent of the 2003 fallout from the Iraq War.

The hostility in the air was all the more palpable when compared to the reception of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau just three days earlier. The European Parliament had Trudeau-mania, and some lawmakers were even seen being moved to tears by Trudeau's call for EU-Canadian unity, as detailed hilariously by Euractiv's James Crisp on Friday:
"In any other parliament in the world a visit from a national leader is an occasion for formal sobriety. Today, the European Parliament showed its age. MEPs were clambering out of their seats to snap Justin on their smart phones and tablets like teenage girls at a boyband concert."
In reality it wasn't (just) the Canadian prime minister's dreamy good looks that were causing the exuberance. It was his assurances that the EU does not stand alone as the last defender of liberal democracy

As the new US president dismantles the global liberal order America established, Trudeau stood before the European Parliament and said his country will stand strong against the rising nationalist tide. And Canada will defend the EU against the new danger it faces from America - ideologically at least.

"You are a vital player in addressing the challenges that we collectively face as an international community," he told the parliament in English and French. "Indeed the whole world benefits from a strong EU."

He was deliberately drawing a contrast between himself and Donald Trump, who has heaped scorn upon the EU, cast doubt upon the future of the NATO military protectorate and supported Europe's far-right insurgents.

Canada and the EU share a belief in democracy, transparency and the rule of law, human rights, inclusion and diversity, Trudeau said. "We know that, in these times, we must choose to lead the international economy, not simply be subject to its whims." He was speaking of the Canada-EU free trade pact CETA, controversial just months ago but last week waved through the European Parliament amid fears of the new Trump world order.

The new US president was not the only target in Trudeau's sights. He made barely-veiled references to Brexit and the isolation it could bring to the UK economy. Trudeau has been hostile to Brexit, both before the referendum and after, even as Theresa May made entreaties to turn the commonwealth realm into a giant free trade zone. 

While Australia and New Zealand have said they are open to such an idea, Trudeau has stayed silent. Why should Canada be interested in such a deal, when they have just struck a mammoth free trade deal with the EU - the second largest in history?

EU politicians were only too happy to return Trudeau's praise on Friday. They heralded him as one of the strongest remaining pillars of liberal democracy and a true friend of Europe. And some in the parliament contrasted his Canada with the 'post-truth' populist regimes which now hold power in Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Both sides had something to gain from Friday's mutual flattery. With the fall of the US and UK to populist forces, Trudeau's refusal to toe the new North Atlantic line gives the EU a buttress as it is attacked by the world's two most powerful English-speaking countries. For Trudeau, CETA gives him a way to quickly wean his country off of its notorious dependence on the United States. 

The Canadian prime minister will never be able to truly stand up to the US president under current economic conditions. But an economic alliance with a strong EU could quickly change that. Trudeau said he hopes the benefits will be apparent to citizens immediately, perhaps even in time for this spring's elections in Europe, which will determine whether the EU stays together or falls apart.

"Hopefully this spring the vast majority of the provisions of CETA are going to start impacting small business, workers, consumers," he said. "People will immediately begin to see the tangible benefits that come from trade deals such as this one." 

How to greet a friend, and how to greet an enemy

While Trudeau's visit sparked hope and enthusiasm, a simultaneous visit by Vice President Pence at a security summit in Munich elicited only some cautious relief.

Pence insisted that Trump didn't mean it when he said that NATO is obsolete and the US wouldn't automatically defend a member if it is attacked. The US President also didn't mean it when he said the EU is a dictatorial project akin to the Soviet Union, he insisted. The US loves the EU and NATO and remains firmly committed to both - a message he repeated today in his visit to EU leaders in Brussels.

Perhaps desperate for some good news - so they can at least sleep at night - European leaders are trying to convince themselves into believing him. Of course, this is all nonsense. While it may be somewhat relieving to think there is someone inside the White House that still believes in the American-led world order that has kept peace in the West for 70 years, Pence is not the actual president. 

Pence appears to have less influence with Trump than Trump's top advisor Steve Bannon, a man who is obsessed with war and revolution and seems to have made the destruction of the EU one of his top goals. Bannon was just installed on the top tier of the US security council, ousting top intelligence and military leaders in something of a palace coup.
So Pence can say whatever he likes while in Munich and Brussels, but the fact of the matter is that it makes no difference until it becomes clear who is going to win the Pence/Bannon power struggle.

Pence is Europe's best hope if it wants to preserve the North Atlantic order. But rather than pinning all their hopes on such a dubious character with uncertain access to power, perhaps Europeans should accept, and prepare for, the Atlantic rift.

Battle lines drawn

EU leaders are well aware that there is an axis forming against them. They have long recognised the threat from Russia, a country that has made no secret of its goal to destroy the EU institutions. But the developments of the past eight months have extended that vision of destruction across the Atlantic, with a Russian puppet now in the White House who is openly calling for the EU to fall apart. Last year's Brexit vote has left the UK with little alternative but to, in turn, make itself a puppet of America

Nominally, the UK's foreign policy remains hard-line against Russia. But they now share not only illiberal, populist goals but also strong ties to Trump's White House. 

Whether the UK realises it yet or not, hard Brexit has left them little alternative but to join a string of puppetry that leads from London to Washington to Moscow. And that means the EU is now surrounded by an axis of populist, right-wing governments that intend to do it harm. Whether that harm will be in military or ideological, we do not yet know.

In three months we will know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has been successful in installing an enemy within. If the French presidency is won by Marine Le Pen - a Putin admirer who receives direct funding and propaganda aid from Russia - the EU has no defence left. Europe would be Putin's for the taking.

Current polls seem to indicate that Le Pen will not win, but as we saw in 2016, anything is possible. Assuming that Le Pen does not win, and that perhaps even the pro-EU liberal Emmanuel Macron wins, then the fight-back can begin.

Who will be on the EU's side? Certainly not the UK. Theresa May's supplicant visit to Washington last month made it clear that the impossible confines of the Brexit decision has left that country with little option but to be a Trump toadie, who is in turn a Putin puppet. Macron has said that Britain should now be considered a "vassal state" to the US.

How much danger does Trump present to the EU? Much is unclear about how the future US-EU relationship is going to play out, depending on how palace intrigues unfold in the White House. But the scenarios range from indifference to outright aggression. 

Should Bannon win the White House power struggle, it is easy to envision a scenario in which the continental European powers find themselves at war with the United States in the not-too-distant future. It is a war they surely cannot win without a unified military, and they know it. 

Canada may not be a global superpower, but it is still one of the world's eighth largest economies and carries considerable diplomatic weight. In times like these, continental Europe needs all the friends it can get. 

Australia's Malcolm Turnbull seems torn right about how to orient his country. His screaming phone call with Trump a few weeks ago, which resulted in the US president hanging up on the Australian prime minister, did not bode well for the relationship. But the EU will be looking for Turnbull to be as vociferous in his defence of the liberal democratic order as Trudeau has been. So far Turnbull has been relatively quiet.

These are the times that test the resolve of leaders. They are also the times that test leaders' skills at alliance-building and deal-making. 

EU leaders are right to maintain good relations with Pence, as he is their best hope to avoid an Atlantic conflict. But they would be foolish to put all their eggs in that basket. An alliance with Canada against the emerging Russia-US-UK axis should be cultivated, and expanded to more partners.

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