Europe has spent the period between the shock election of Donald Trump and his ascension to the White House biting its nails. But the new president's recent disparagement of the future of the European Union -- basically that it may not have one at all -- has leaders finally sounding less worried and more assertive.
In the European Parliament's plenary session Wednesday, the head of the ALDE group, Guy Verhofstadt, raged against the remarks, demanding a formal EU response. "It's insane!" he said. "We should be very conscious this will be a turning point on the 20th of January."
Verhofstadt also suggested to fellow lawmakers the "American ambassador" should be summoned to "explain Trump's statements".
The problem with that is that there is no "American ambassador" to the EU anymore. As of January 20, Anthony Gardner will no longer be in his office in Brussels as President Trump takes over his in Washington. Gardner, along with his counterparts at NATO and the EU, is among those the new president told in no uncertain terms to vacate their premises by inauguration.
It is likely to be many months before Trump-appointed ambassadors arrive in Brussels. One US diplomat explained that usually during presidential campaigns, there is a shadow administration -- with skeleton cabinets already assembled -- which can move into place the minute the keys are handed over after inauguration. The Trump campaign, this diplomat said, had no such system in place on election day.
US Ambassador's ire precedes EP's
Gardner, an unabashed EU admirer who spent his three-year tenure campaigning for the Transatlantic Free Trade and Investment Partnership [TTIP] and other forms of closer cooperation, said he'd decided he would rather go out "in a ball of flames" than be seen to acquiesce with the new administration's views on Europe.
"It's critically important," Gardner said in his last roundtable with journalists, "that while being loyal to the new team -- which is absolute right and appropriate in a democratic system -- that people speak truth to power and don't be shy in sometimes saying what [they] believe in."
Gardner said he had received no communication from incoming officials asking him for guidance on EU relations -- only a single phone call asking if he needed logistical help moving out by the deadline. He had, however, heard from EU contacts that the new president's team had made some calls to EU leaders -- with the priority being to inquire which country was most likely to leave the bloc, he said.
Gardner made no secret of his views. "The EU, despite all of the issues that we see everyday living and being here," Gardner insisted, "is not about to fall apart!" But he confirmed that the prevailing view at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave from Friday forward appears to be that "2017 is the year" in which the EU disintegrates.
One NATO commander upbeat
Across town at NATO headquarters, officials are equally concerned about what's to come, especially after the same interview that suggested multiple EU mutinies also reiterated the disparagement of NATO as "obsolete". One NATO diplomat said he'd been asked by a European colleague whether "obsolete" could possibly have more than one meaning in American English, but that he'd had no euphemistic alternatives to offer.
Top military officials in the alliance for the most part dismiss such characterizations, as do Trump's own cabinet nominees. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has also done his share to buff the rough edges of Trump rhetoric, saying NATO "will go on".
After a meeting of alliance chiefs of defense earlier this week, Czech General Petr Pavel, head of NATO's Military Committee, asserted the "relevance of NATO is not in question" and people are free to debate how the alliance will adapt to changing security needs. Asked whether Trump's friendlier line with Russia might itself embolden the Kremlin to further push the limits, Pavel wouldn't hedge any guesses, saying military planners don't "build assessments" based on mere statements.
The one military official who didn't seem to be put on the defensive by Trump's comments is the French general in charge of NATO's Transformation command, Denis Mercier. His job is to plan how NATO should evolve, so by nature he agrees that some parts of the organization can and should be updated.
Speaking at NATO headquarters, Mercier confronted one of the worst-case scenarios: if Trump were to decide US troops -- currently posted in eastern allies due to the Russian threat -- should not be deployed in Europe. "Speaking frankly," Mercier said, "if the US forces would stop deploying it would be some kind of a strategic shock in Europe...really, really."
But, brightening, Mercier said he doesn't believe that will happen. On the contrary, he hopes the Trump team's skepticism of NATO may simply mean it's more open to ideas for change. "It's a huge opportunity for my headquarters!" he said. "We have ideas...a more federated approach, with more commitment from all nations. I believe they will like that."
Civil society pushes back
Human rights activists aren't so enthusiastic about their prospects. A group of non-governmental organizations - Amnesty International, Avaaz, Greenpeace International, the International Trade Union Confederation, Oxfam International, and Transparency International - released a joint statement aimed at the World Economic Forum in Davos against what they called "new climate of permissiveness for hate crimes and discrimination" in all countries. However, Amnesty, for one, headlined it "As the world prepares for Trump..."
Amnesty International's Julia Hall was in Brussels this week to present new statistics on how European governments' heavy focus on counter-terrorism is trampling basic freedoms. Hall said she hopes Europe will "reestablish itself as a standard-bearer of human rights in the counter-terrorism context" in light of the fact that Trump has, for example, raised the possibility of reinstating waterboarding as an acceptable interrogation technique. "Of course we don't want to go back there!" she said.
And while they didn't have a say in him winning the office, thousands of people across Europe will march in opposition Friday as Donald Trump is sworn in. In solidarity with the Women's March on Washington, an event called "Lights for Rights" will take place in downtown Brussels with similar gatherings planned in other European cities.
Joan Card Redemer, an American who's now also a Belgian citizen after years living in Antwerp, has taken her protest one step further and is flying back to Washington with her husband to take part in the big march there in support of the rights of women and minorities. Redemer says she's never been "particularly politically active" but has become "angry beyond words" with the new president's position on "nearly every single issue". They left Brussels for Washington early Thursday morning. "Even though we don't live in the US," she said, "it is still our country and it deserves better."