Wednesday

19th Sep 2018

Obama warns of Trump-type populism in Europe

  • The US president is due in Berlin later on Wednesday (Photo: G8 UK Presidency)

Outgoing US president Barack Obama has said Nato ties were “unwavering” despite the election of Donald Trump, but warned of the “volatile mix” of poverty and populism.

He issued the remarks on his last overseas trip, to Greece and Germany, prior to handing over to Trump in January.

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  • Tsipras (l) has also cultivated ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin (r)

Trump, in his campaign, said he would not defend Nato allies who spent too little on defence and that he wanted to make a new deal with Russia.

Obama said after meeting Greek president Prokopios Pavlopoulos in Athens on Tuesday (15 November) that the US commitment to Nato was “unwavering”.

“Even as we see a transition of governments in the United States, across Democratic and Republican administrations, there's a recognition that the Nato alliance is absolutely vital and the transatlantic relationship is the cornerstone of our mutual security”, he said.

Obama also said, later on Tuesday, that he told Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras of “the importance of keeping sanctions, including EU sanctions, in place until Russia has fully implemented the Minsk agreement [a Ukraine ceasefire deal]”.

Tsipras said that even if Trump “would want to rapidly change the foreign policy of a country such as the United States” then that would be “very difficult”.

Greece has also criticised EU sanctions on Russia and cultivated ties with the Kremlin.

Tsipras said that he agreed to EU bailouts and austerity measures, back in 2015, because he made a strategic choice to stick with the West, however.

“Difficult decisions were made not only in order to keep our country in the eurozone, but also in order to maintain the cohesion of the European Union”, he said.

Trump world view

Obama said that Trump, who made racist, sexist, and nationalist comments in his campaign rallies, had “a very different world view”.

He said, he didn’t “feel responsible for what the president-elect says or does” and that some of Trump’s “rhetoric” was “pretty troubling and not necessarily connected to facts”.

Tsipras said Trump had an “aggressive manner” and “unconventional points of view”.

He said he expected him to change his style when he became president and that Europe should “build bridges, not walls” with the incoming US leader, however.

Obama and Tsipras repeated their previous appeals for Greece’s EU creditors, such as Germany, to write off some of its debt.

They warned that if segments of European or US society drift into long-term poverty it could create instability.

Obama said “economic dislocation” and “a suspicion of elites and governing institutions that people feel may not be responsive to their immediate needs” had “produced populist movements, both from the left and the right, in many countries in Europe”.

“That sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity and that can be a volatile mix”, he added.

He said populist leaders “tapped into” people’s fears with "a crude sort of nationalism or ethnic identity or tribalism that is built around an ‘us’ and a ‘them’".

“We know what happens when Europeans start dividing themselves up, and emphasising their differences … The 20th century was a bloodbath,” he said.

With France’s far-right National Front party tweeting that Trump’s office had invited them to “work together”, Obama said it would be wrong to treat them as normal politicians.

Le Pen-Trump axis

“It’s important not to start drawing parallels, for example, between Theresa May - a fairly traditional conservative politician, who is now [British] prime minister - and [National Front leader Marine] Le Pen in France. Those aren't the same,” he said.

Tsipras appealed directly to German leader Angela Merkel.

He recalled that allied powers wrote off German debt after World War II in order to stabilise Europe.

Recalling also her humanitarian way of dealing with the refugee crisis, he depicted the chancellor as an antidote to Trump-type politics.

“Today, the strong Germany, which is the financial powerhouse of Europe, should think in the same manner,”as the post-WWII powers Tsipras said.

“I’m of the opinion that she [Merkel] is a responsible politician, a politician who has a sense of responsibility for Europe, and not only for Germany or for her political party,” he said.

“This was the manner in which she dealt with the refugee crisis, with a deep sense of responsibility on the future of Europe and on stability.”

Obama will give another speech on Wednesday to the Greek people, before going to Berlin to meet Merkel.

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Opinion

Rising to the challenge of 'European Angst'

Liberals and the left need to think up new narratives to counter the rise of populist, eurosceptic and extremist parties. This will be the theme of a conference in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, with EUobserver as a partner.

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