Alexander Görlach interviews José Manuel Martínez Sierra, Jean Monnet ad personam Professor for the Study of European Union Law and Government, Faculty Affiliate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard and Faculty Associate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
SLD: Donald Trump will be president; the electoral college approved him. What will the world look like with him as the US President?
This question implies another question that has had great impact in some public opinion circles in the European Union, but has had no major impact in the US public opinion – the fact that the President of the US is not elected by direct vote, but by an Electoral College. Not for the first time in history, the President-elect has obtained over 2.5 million votes less that the Democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton. In general this has happened at times when the Democrats win the popular vote, while being defeated in terms of Electoral Colleges votes.
A case much talked about is Gore vs Bush, a presidential race that ended with a controversial resolution in the US Supreme Court. Most probably, the recent election is the second-most paramount case in electoral history, not just because of the features of the candidate and President-elect, Donald Trump, but because of his campaign, and the polarization that he was able to create in American society.
From a European perspective, it is surprising that there is no debate about the need for constitutional reform in the US, not least around the electoral reform system used to elect the President. The maintenance of the existing framework can just be explained by the deep constitutional tradition in the US. Even among intellectual circles, there’s an awareness that it is almost impossible to reform the system, one that was designed with the aim of searching for a balance between South and North, a divide that is more closely reflected by a misbalance between the most populated areas of the country and rural areas with more geographical dispersion.
Regarding the explicit dimension of this question, I think a world with Donald Trump as President of the US will become more multipolar. If Trump continues acting exactly the same as he has been during all his career in business and politics, implies that he will not tend to respect the orthodox parameters of American Foreign Policy, nor the traditional alliances. And even though the forces of the system in the Department of State, the Pentagon, and other American agencies would offer him an anti-establishment movement, including the Congress and the Senate, the true fact is that the hot-headed interventions of Donald Trump will make the rules reposition.
Just to give a couple of examples, it is enough to mention the fact that Trump first welcomed the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, over the British Primer Minister, Theresa May. Or a second example is the phone call with the Tsai Ing-wen, instead of having contacted the President of the People’s Republic of China.
SLD: His cabinet does not reflect the promises he made in his campaign, many argue. Will this not lead to even more disappointment with democracy as he fails to deliver on his promises, and therefore leaving his voters even more disenfranchised?
It is true that there are reasons to think there will most probably be citizen discontent, as there are aspects of not observing the campaign commitments. But as always when it comes to speaking about Donald Trump, the only true thing is that he has never been ambiguous in one thing; he has always been a scourge to the Establishment, especially to Capitol Hill and the financial elite in the country. Voters elected Donald Trump based on many incoherent and contradictory arguments.
A fact that has remained unnoticed, but one I truly believe is important, is that a large portion of his voters had serious doubts on his ability to serve as a good President. There is no “cause-and-effect” relationship. He has been considered a people’s candidate, opposed to the traditional way of doing politics. To do so, he does not need to carry out effortless initiatives, but strategic ones.
For example, Obama’s administration deported two million people considered illegal aliens. Donald Trump can follow this step with another two or three million, which seems to be the remaining illegal aliens. The difference is that he will do it and will present it before the public as something that has been really done, in contrast with other Administrations, even if the Administration immediately prior to his Presidency carried out the similar policy at the same scale. Or another example: the fact of dramatizing the annihilation of agreements such as TTIP, even if Hillary Clinton would have had serious difficulties in achieving after the campaign waged by Bernie Sanders.
There can be frustration due to the lack of results, but the lack of results at least at an economic level will not depend on the President himself. We should also take into account that the starting point for Donald Trump is very much different to the legacy that President Obama inherited from his predecessor, since the current situation shows a huge economic recovery.
SLD: What effect you think a Trump Presidency will have on Europe?
I think his presidency will generate a favorable context for the EU to strengthen its role in the world and therefore its global project. Certainly this will be the case in foreign policy, trade policy and even concerning a common security and defense policy. This does not necessarily mean that EU political leaders will take advantage of this favorable situation and square away European projects with the window of opportunity that a Trump presidency provides for the EU.
There are indeed some elements that present likely windows of opportunities. For instance, one of the promises that Trump is allegedly not going to give up is the fact that NATO member states pay their fair share through their own defense. If this happens, it is probable that the EU will balance influence accordingly with a global military budget balance. It may also be difficult for European states after Brexit, though they also stand a better chance to promote a more autonomous presence in this field and in everything related US-EU bilateral relations and more generally with foreign affairs.
Another window of opportunity will be in international trade after the rise and fall of TTIP. Once the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada has been signed, it does not look like that the EU will act differently toward other regional trade areas of the world, particularly since the EU will be in a better position to take advantage of the new momentum while Trump’s heterodox approaches in this field.
Contrarily, some may argue that the European Leaders and European Institutions are disconnected from the opinions of their electorates, particularly in relation to the EU since the austerity measures put the EU and national leaders in the spotlight. This is indeed true, but strangely enough, I see another window of opportunity here since such a strong external actor can contribute to the EU deadlock: a lack of leadership and lack of engagement mired by inequality and never ending crisis of austerity.
Instead of thinking here about Aristotle’s famous reference about how a common danger unites even the bitterest enemies, I think about a thought of one of the founding fathers, namely Samuel Adams. I am referring to the important role that principles and manners (even of presidential candidates) play in the strength of a society, which are far more important than the whole force of the common enemy. Trump’s administration is going to be a challenge for the American civil society, but also to the European one. We Europeans will have to decide if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is paramount or not. We are going to be confronted with challenges as we were during the Iraq war or with WikiLeaks, but this time on regular basis. European leaders will then have a chance to stand for European values with a majority of European public opinion behind. If they fail to meet this challenge, populism will gain but not without pain.
SLD: When we look into the old world, the European Union, we see there are elections in France and Germany. There are valid fears that the Trump election may also spark the victory of Marie Le Pen in France and the right wing AfD in Germany. How realistic is this scenario for you?
It is thought-provoking to learn lessons from Trump and take them into consideration for Europe. I think the question is very relevant. Although there are some colleagues who consider that the socio-cultural and political context to be very diverse in Europe, I think there is a common ground that makes this question really pertinent.
The answer can be addressed in several ways. Firstly, the way European power is considered with respect to the power in the US taking into account their constitutional and electoral processes. The presidential election in the United States favors a result after one round, a blow of effect in a single hand. France, from the formal point of view, or Germany, or Spain, being parliamentary democracies, have a margin of reaction. Certainly the Le Pen phenomenon has a margin of reaction in the second round of elections. It is possible that in view of the disruption caused by the presidency of Hollande in the Socialist party and the no less dubious credential of Valls as a candidate representing the center-left, there may be a second round with Le Pen and with the Conservative candidate Fillon. However, I believe that in that case the Trump effect will work in favor of the most orthodox candidate, and the mobilization of the vote, precisely because Trump makes it possible for the vote of fear to be more effective. I think it’s going to produce a Trump effect in reverse, although I understand that in other contexts the Trump effect might play in favor of alternative candidates. But that will only happen if the Trump Administration achieves great success, which I don’t anticipate.
From a material point of view, the connection between Europe and the United States, which has to do with classical elements that are repeated in history, politics, and society, must be heeded. One of them is the increasing inequality and above all the visibility of inequality, which is novel in history due to the global interconnection. Another element is racism and the fear of globalization which should be object of a interview on its own.
A third dimension related to the previous ones is the feeling of being left behind, which is an element that plays a key role in social psychology and has done so in the US elections, a sentiment that the candidacy of Hillary Clinton has not been able to tackle accurately. It’s concerning this matter that those who want to preserve contemporary democracies must be very conscious. I am referring to how we make those who feel marginalized or even ridiculed by the creators of public opinion and opinion leaders, who are difficult to re-educate through traditional channels or through a formed public opinion. There has been an overwhelming number of Americans who have voted for a candidate whom they even considered bad, just to send a message to mainstream public opinion and the establishment.
I believe Europeans have to learn from those who have ridiculed Trump’s potential voters in the campaign. It is important to have more emotional intelligence and less intellectual arrogance. And I say this considering that Hillary Clinton was trying to be descriptive (rather than insulting) when she said that half of Trump’s voters were a basket of deplorable people. That may be true but it should not be said by a presidential candidate and should not be echoed by the media that want to preserve liberal democracy. Europe, like the United States, must take serious and structural measures in education, civic and constitutional values and respect for those who are different. At the same time, Europe needs to act in the media and also in civil society, including active policies that foster coexistence and social inclusion. Last but not least, we must understand that we are in a world where inequality is absolutely visible and the richest and most powerful cannot continue to think that quotas of brutal inequality and the accumulation of wealth in a minority can be maintained without risking democratic system and their beloved wealth with it. There are many lessons to be learned from how an entirely different bid from Donald Trump’s campaign, that held up by Bernie Sanders and the frustration of a large sector for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, forces that resulted in abstention and missing votes for the Democrat candidate. The lesson of these mistakes must be taken very seriously in Europe. If these lessons are taken into consideration, such scenarios will not occur in Europe.
SLD: How do Spaniards view the European Union these days, especially the young generation?
In accordance with all Eurobarometers and democratic acts that have been taking place throughout recent democratic history in the last forty years, Spain has proved to be a deeply pro-European country. As an example of this Europeanism, it can be said that in the most radical moments of politics’ polarization between the two main parties of the political spectrum, the Partido Popular (PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the consensus on the European Union has guaranteed a majority 80% of the Spanish parliament in favor of the European Union. However, another way of expressing this could be the fact that Spain was the first country and one of the few that ratified the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. In fact, it had to ensure the Treaty did not enter in force, despite massive electoral support.
This structural Europeanism had a turning point with the last economic turmoil and with the reaction that took place around the crisis, both by the majority of parties in Spain and by the institutions of the European Union. The feeling that austerity policies of the European institutions, which have been symbolized in the Troika independent from where it has actually operated, have been more devoted to protecting financial interests than the economic and social situation of citizens. It is also important to analyze the lack of major results in Spain during the five years of the Partido Popular leadership, during which time the government has failed to make the economic recovery to reverse the dynamics of structural unemployment, despite applying the EU institution’s recipes and legitimatizing these actions through an EU mandate.
These events have indeed implied a loss of support for the European Union. The appearance of the new political party, Podemos, is important because it is close to becoming the second party in Spain, given its governance of the most important cities. They are not anti-European but rather claim the need for a different Europe. It has an important echo in the younger generations, which strangely enough are the most educated, well-informed and well-cultured in the history of Spain and those who suffer a higher level of unemployment.
SLD: When we look into the election results in the United States and in the Brexit-votum, the cohort of the millennials did not go to the ballot booth. If they had, the results would have been reversed: the UK would remain a member of the European Union and Hillary Clinton would become president of the United States of America. What do you think is the reason why this generation is not supporting the democratic system their future relies on?
Studies that analyze abstention among the younger generations show that it is a multi-causal phenomenon in which many aspects are affected. Certainly there are personal or subjective reasons, but also social issues that could be caused by the typical apathy of juvenile social psychology. There are aspects that have to do with the perception of the youth of the political sphere, which implies that the decisions of the youth do not change the final result. In this aspect, although not exclusively, there are many elements of the representation of the electoral system that is used, or of the existence of added obstacles, such as pre-voting registration. The event also determines the context of other elections that follow.
Youth abstention, although not an inevitable trend, can be restored by making mobilization efforts at the polls, a key factor in activating potential voters who are young people, who are usually undecided on whether to vote or not to vote.
The aspects that can stimulate youth voting are also well studied, among them the recognition and understanding of the specific interests of youth in general public life, in the elections and in the electoral campaign in particular. The structural question of socio-educational and socio-economic character facing the social and political exclusion of these generations. Structural changes such as elimination of registration, as in OECD countries, would be very important in order to deal with this abstention. In this way, electronic voting would be very useful. But the fundamental element is that traditional politics is designed to ensure stable majorities and this has ended up preserving the conservative and adult vote in general.
In practical terms for the cases in which you asked me: In the UK elections that took place in 2015, the vote of those under 25 was scarce, 40% roughly. At the same time the statistics showed that there was no doubt that the majority of the vote was in favor of remaining in the European Union. However, the parties that supported permanence in the European Union or at least proclaimed to done so, did not carry out a serious, coherent and consistent strategy of attracting the youth vote. In the American case of Bernie Sanders, the situation was even more alarming, as it is clear how his speech connected more directly with their problems. Inequality, the educational bubble and the impossible costs of American private education, widespread health and social coverage and a long et cetera. Bernie Sanders was a lousy candidate for a series of factors that we are not going to detail here: being considered a socialist in the United States, a senator with no special brilliance, being unattractive in terms of public presence, coming from a small state or his gun-control policy. In addition, for having having the entire establishment of the democratic party and the media in favor of Hillary Clinton, although the latter I must say that just played against her.
But what I want to say is that a bad candidate who connected with younger generations got a massive mobilization of the youth around that candidacy. However, when Hillary Clinton was elected as a candidate over Sanders, the decisions she made not only failed to adequately accommodate that energy, but also acted with as a “business as usual” policy, thinking that all they had to do was to enjoy the safe victory over Trump and make no concessions to either the youth or any other portions of the population not mobilized in favor of Hillary Clinton during the democratic primary elections.
This lack of strategic vision, this lack of inclusion in the speech of people linked to the wave of Bernie Sanders supporters, led to the creation of frustration and even active reluctance to this Democratic nomination. That is to say, the conclusion would be that the youth should be educated by society and the best way to educate is to generate spaces where they can feel comfortable: idealistic young generations in which realities and dreams are conjugated, and not expect for them to vote as an adult. Europe also has to learn from these mistakes.