EU Gears Up for Trade War with  US as Populist Challenge Grows

A handout photograph from the German government shows a group of leaders at the Group of Seven summit, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump, in Canada on June 9, 2018

European Union officials are preparing for a trade war with the United States, but on another front, they’re bracing for equally hazardous challenges closer to home from central and southern European populists, who see themselves as ideological allies of President Donald Trump and appear to share his goals.

Officials fear the recent acrimonious G-7 summit in Canada will embolden populist-led governments they dub “the awkward squad” to redouble their pushback on Brussels over migration, public spending,the sovereign rights of member states, and the issue of EU sanctions on Russia.

And, along with Europe’s “establishment” politicians, EU officials say Trump “confederates,” from the outspoken U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, to former White House adviser Steve Bannon, are not making their lives any easier by fanning populist flames in Europe.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, increasingly seen as “Trump on the Danube,” has already served notice of his intention to pursue broad legal changes, including possibly enshrining “Hungarian values” and national identity in the country’s constitution, a move likely to fall afoul of EU rules.

His spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, told reporters ahead of the G-7 that core national values should be beyond the purview of EU courts and enshrining them in Hungary’s constitution would be part of an effort to counter EU legislation “that’s in the end trying to create a federal Europe by undermining the powers of national governments.”

Austria’s new chancellor, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who heads a coalition government of his populist People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, is planning to block immigrants, including refugees, from receiving benefits during their first five years in the country and to reduce social benefits they do get thereafter, if they cannot speak German.

The action would put his government on a collision course with Brussels and the European courts because under EU legislation, member states are required to treat all citizens equally. Kurz has been described as a “rock star” by Grenell. The U.S. envoy prompted criticism earlier this month for breaching diplomatic norms when he invited to lunch the Austrian chancellor when Kurz was on an official visit to Berlin.

Austria will take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU next month, giving it an influential role in setting the bloc’s agenda.

Kurz has said his priority for the presidency is to stop more migrants entering the EU by “safeguarding” Europe’s borders. He will also put his weight against member states being required to accept burden-sharing migrant resettlement quotas — a key issue also for the four-nation Visegrad Group of central European countries of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which has been a critic of EU migrant policies.

And led by Orban, a liberal-turned-conservative nationalist, they are making no effort to disguise their overall aim of reshaping the EU by taking power away from the EU institutions in Brussels and returning it to national governments.

By: Jamie Dettmer

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