Visegrád on Trump: Anxious but optimistic

According to EURACTIV's Visegrad partners, Donald Trump is a mixed blessing for Central European states. [Joe Seer/ Shutterstock]

Depending on which country you ask, in Central Europe, the new US government is either a source of unease in matters concerning Moscow or, in the case of Hungary, newfound confidence. EURACTIV’s Central European partners report.

The EU and the US have been close partners for the many years past. Despite their differences, they share similar values and cooperate on various policy issues. They are a driving force behind various pro-democracy initiatives and they cooperate closely on security matters, including Syria and Ukraine.

Nevertheless, Brussels and Washington have also been at odds many times. Recent years have witnessed a number of policy issues in which the EU and the US could not find a common ground – or in which finding a common position has required tiresome back-and-forth: privacy and data protection, a reduction in CO2 emissions or GMOs. The list is long.

The ties were not made stronger through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. Following years of talks, the deal has not been completed and, as everything seems to indicate, will not be made in the future.

The coming years look like, at least at the current moment, times of uncertainty. Donald Trump, a newcomer to the world of politics, is taking power on a wave of populism. His rise to the presidency was unexpected and his first decisions did not do anything to alleviate the fears of America’s allies and partners.

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Yet the Visegrad Group (V4) of countries may be a little calmer than their West European allies. At least in the short term, they are not likely to be harmed by Trump’s decisions – and while they may not profit significantly from the change of government across the Atlantic, a lack of losses is its own profit.

Poland: Wary but optimistic

Poland and the US enjoy a historically strong relationship, the perennial visa issue notwithstanding. Poland has been the most pro-American country in the V4, often regarded as the strongest supporter of the US and the American policy in the Central and Eastern Europe. This historical relationship is not directly under threat under the new administration, but Poland is worried about being marginalised under Trump.

Michał Baranowski, Director of the Warsaw Office of the German Marshall Fund of the US, sees the focus of the Trump Administration on bilateral relations as a chance for strengthening the Polish-American bond. Nevertheless, he is wary of the “Trump’s unpredictability and dynamic approach.”

For Poland, in terms of her relationship with the US, the security issue takes priority. The shadow of Russia has been growing over the last decade and Warsaw is anxious about getting more and better security guarantees from Washington, as Russia is considered a real threat to the continued existence of the Polish state.

Poland has been quite successful in this respect in recent years: It bought its new fighter jet, the F-16, from the US, in a deal that included a significant offset package, increasing American investment even further. During the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the US committed to deploying troops in Poland as a part of the constant rotation in Central and Eastern Europe, the so-called Eastern Flank.

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And here is the main reason behind the Polish anxiety over Trump. While Poland did not play a significant role in his campaign, the new president’s comments on Russia and Vladimir Putin, as well as his stated aim of decreasing American military engagement in NATO and in Europe has been heard in Warsaw. Poland is unsure whether or not President Trump will act on his campaign promises and, if so, what shape his actions will take.

For Baranowski, the best way forward would be to focus less on ideas and more on the mutual benefits of supporting Poland. “Trump has a more utilitarian approach to their allies than his predecessors. Poland should then focus on showing him what benefits the continued support of Poland will bring to the US: that the Eastern Flank is also important for the American security, for example. We may also have to think about further supporting the American fight against terrorism and the IS, which may require some difficult decisions from Poland, such as becoming more engaged in Syria,” he said.

Nevertheless, Tomasz Smura, Research Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation, is cautiously optimistic about the future. He stresses that “for the short term, six to twelve months, nothing much will change with respect to the security dimension of the Polish-American relationship”. He noted that “the president is not the emperor, so even if he wants to introduce any significant changes, they will require a consent of the Congress, so it will all depend on his position there”.

The Polish Foreign Ministry is even more optimistic. “We are convinced that the important Polish-American bilateral relationship will continue to grow and be developed under the Donald Trump’s administration”,” says Joanna Wajda, the spokesperson for the ministry. She added, “this opinion has been confirmed after the [Polish Foreign] Minister Witold Waszczykowski’s recent meeting with Henry Kissinger, the Foreign Policy Adviser, and Michael Flynn, the National Security Adviser”.

Despite these anxieties, the economic side of the relationship is expected to grow strong during the coming years. The trade exchange between the two countries reached 9 billon in 2015 and has been growing ever since.

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Tony Housh, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Poland, does not expect any significant changes in terms of economic ties between Poland and the US. He said that “the strong current relationship [between Poland and the US] will continue, without any disruption”, despite a certain anxiety towards the new administration.

Poland has just welcomed American forces arriving in the country. Warsaw hopes that the historical ties, improving trade and the US military presence will manage to keep the country safe for the coming years.

Trump will focus on countries like the Czech Republic

President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman was one of the few European politicians who openly supported Donald Trump. It is probably the reason why he has already been invited to the White House. While it is usually better if politicians talk to each other and have good relations, many in the Czech Republic ask the question is what this relationship is going to mean for the country.

Jan Kovář, researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague says that one of the Trump´s goals is to destabilise the European Union.

“In my view, Trump´s position and stance is based on the idea that the European Union is more a competitor than a partner. He sees the EU in the same way as he sees China. He perceives these countries as competitors,” he told EURACTIV Czech Republic.

“He will focus on countries where we can see clear anti-European stances within politicians and societies. That means countries like the Czech Republic and V4 in general. It is also the reason why he stresses that Angela Merkel´s migration policy is so bad,” he added.

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Both politicians could find a common ground in this field. Last year, the Czech President suggested that a national referendum on membership in the EU and also in NATO would not be a bad idea.

However, Vít Dostál, the Director of research Centre at Association for International Affairs has a different point of view. “The question is how the United States will perceive Czech orientation to the east, mainly to China. For Trump, China is the biggest opponent in the international system. And Chinese effort to gain influence in Middle Europe could be one of the things which the new American administration will focus on,” he thinks.

Chinese investments are an important topic of President Zeman and the visit of the Chinese President in the Czech Republic was, in his opinion, a great success. As far as this topic is concerned, Trump and Zeman could rather argue.

Concerning the Visegrad Group as a whole, the victory of Donald Trump is likely to be bad news. Tomáš Prouza, the State Secretary for European Affairs of the Czech Republic, shares this view. “According to some of Trump´s statements, it seems that his victory is rather bad for Central and Eastern Europe. At this time, Trump is rather a danger for our defence and economy,” he warns.

In his opinion, the reaction of these countries will be very important. “This situation brings two main tasks for the Czech Republic. First, we have to focus on supporting the internal Single Market and a free trade with third countries. Second, we must strengthen our defence cooperation within Europe including the future creation of European armed forces. We shouldn´t be dependent on the USA in the field of defence anymore,” he stresses.

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Recently, the strengthening of our security and defence cooperation has been quite a big topic in the EU. And the V4 countries should have a responsible approach. “The Czech Republic must increase its defence spending because the new American Administration will talk only to the countries that fulfil their obligations,” Radko Hokovský, the executive director of the Prague-based think-tank European Values, says.

Slovakia´s cautious optimism

Early Slovak reactions to the election of Donald Trump were polite, slightly optimistic, but mostly cautious. Prime Minister Robert Fico said not to assume that Trump´s presidency would necessarily be a bad thing and hailed the prospect of “balance of powers between the superpowers”, referring to US and Russia. What is more, he added that in some areas the EU “has acted a delivery boy for the US” and believes that if the US lifts sanctions against the Russia, the EU would do the same, which he would prefer, calling them “nonsense”.

Fico acknowledged however that Europe will “need to react” if Trump goes along with his pledge to decrease the military engagement in Europe even further. President Andrej Kiska reacted in a manner that was nowhere near as jubilant as the one of his Czech counterpart but wished Trump a successful term. Kiska believes that NATO will represent the same values no matter who sits in the White House.

In terms of transatlantic relations, Slovak public perception differs from their V4 neighbours. The research done by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) released in May 2016 showed that the level of distrust towards the US is the highest in the region. Only 27 % of respondents said they trust America.

Andrej Matišák, a Slovak journalist covering foreign affairs for Pravda, says that Slovakia and the US are members of same organisations, and are connected by trade and shared values. That “may sound too little for some, but even that is now at stake”, he told EURACTIV Slovakia.

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To develop good relations, Matišák suggests frequent contacts with the new U.S. administration as well as other centres of power, for example, Congress, businesses and NGOs. “We need to be clear about our expectations. I´m not entirely sure that´s the case,” he added.

US-Slovak trade is steadily growing stronger. According to AmCham Slovakia, in 2015, it amounted to 2.06 billion USD. Policy Officer at the AmCham Michal Krčméry expects that the positive trend in mutual trade relations will indeed continue. “American investors in Slovakia are relatively stable. We don´t expect them to re-evaluate their plans in light of the change in the White House,” Krčméry said. “Surely, it is harder to tell how the political changes will translate into a further influx of more US investment.”

The major outstanding question linked to Trump´s presidency is his (un) willingness to remain involved in European defence. The Minister of Defence of the Slovak Republic, Peter Gajdoš, shied away from linking the increased defence budget with Trump claiming NATO was “obsolete”.

Slovakia´s pledge to raise military spending up to 1.6 % in 2020 goes well before the recent heated debate on military expenditures in Europe. At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, the Slovak delegation seconded the motion to reinforce NATO´s Eastern Flank.

Speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia, defence ministry spokesperson Danka Capáková highlighted sending 152 soldiers to the Baltic training mission of the Visegrad Group countries.

Focusing on the Trump´s inauguration speech, Dušan Fischer of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association (SFPA) noticed no positive reference to Europe whatsoever. “For the next 4 years, Trump might not even come across relations with the V4,” Fischer said.

Hungary expects more freedom

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s vision of the Donald Trump-led world consists of the end of the era of multilateral agreements and improving US-Hungarian relations. The Hungarian prime minister was the first mainstream leader to throw his support behind the Republican candidate. The Hungarian premier, looking to settle into a “multipolar world order”, argued against the election of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning because the foreign policy of the Democrats is “deadly for Hungary”, while that of the Republicans offers the country a chance to live. He praised Trump for his anti-immigration views, his belief in strengthening secret services and putting an end to the exporting of American democracy.

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“Viktor Orbán disliked the Obama Administration mainly because it constantly reminded him of the importance of adhering to democratic values, while the Hungarian government expects the complete opposite from the Trump Administration”, said former Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Balázs. According to the former EU Commissioner, ideological similarities and a less interventionist American foreign policy could offer protocol-level advantages to Orbán in the form of an invitation to the White House, although these factors are unlikely to offer him more space for manoeuvre on the international stage. A White House less concerned with the internal affairs of other states could offer more freedom to the Hungarian government domestically – said US expert Tamás Magyarics. The Orbán government has received a lot of criticism from Washington since its inauguration in 2010 for the media law, attacks on civil society and the erosion of the system of checks and balances, among others, added the associate professor of ELTE University.

Political scientist Márton Ugrósdy believes two important factors will determine the long-term nature of bilateral relations: number one is how the Russian-American relationship develops, which everyone depends on in the region. The second is who will be entrusted with Eastern European affairs in the State Department. Ugrósdy said one can only speculate what will happen until this becomes clear. The role of Hungary is traditionally perceived in the context of Central and Easter Europe in Washington, and if the Trump-Putin relationship deteriorates Hungary could again face criticism as an underpaying NATO member and one of the most important regional allies of the Kremlin. According to Márton Ugrósdy, a researcher at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the change of guard in Washington will provide the Hungarian government with half a year when it can achieve its goals under less American scrutiny.

Donald Trump often voiced the opinion that NATO is obsolete and it should operate by dividing the share of the burden more equally not only in his campaign but after his election as well. Thus, the underpaying member states must increase their defence spending to 2% of the GDP as soon as possible, which Hungary promised to achieve by 2026. “Based on the statements of the American president it is not out of the question that the Hungarian government will have to rethink this commitment in order to bring the deadline forward,” said the Fidesz-affiliated chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign policy committee, Zsolt Németh.

Europe is currently playing the waiting game with regards to the effects of the Trump Administration on the stability of transatlantic relations, but the majority of Hungarian experts believe it is unrealistic that USA would back out of NATO’s solidarity clause. Nevertheless, the continent should establish a more effective defence union, which became clear after the Brexit referendum. Németh believes that the agreement of EU leaders on deepening defence and military industry cooperation to establish a structure working independently of NATO to be an important step. “Although NATO handing over some competences, for example in the Aegean Sea, to Europe would be the proper thing to do, the defence structure of the union under no circumstance should become an alternative to NATO,” noted the politician.

Even though nothing has been said about deepening defence cooperation being aimed at the establishment of a joint army, the Hungarian prime minister has for quite some time urged the establishment of an EU Army founded on Franco-German cooperation. The message fits well into the “let’s put security first” narrative propagated by the Hungarian government. However, it is naturally in conflict with the anti-federalist view of Orbán.