Trump’s Travel Ban a Blow to the Atlantic Alliance
This piece has been published in collaboration with the Atlantic Council, where Frances G. Burwell is a distinguished fellow. The views expressed are the author’s own.
President Donald Trump’s executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries puts at risk U.S. relations with America’s European partners. At first glance, the measure would seem to have little to do with Europe. But in reality, it will affect European citizens and businesses, and even European security. Perhaps most important, the ban has shaken to the core European perceptions of the transatlantic alliance as being one based on shared values and the rule of law.
The executive order comes at a time when European concerns about the new president are already rather high. Trump has in the past referred to NATO as obsolete, and although key members of his Cabinet have offered supportive statements on the alliance, uncertainty lingers across the Continent. The president has also been publicly supportive of Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union and suggested that others might follow. His criticism of the European Union at a recent press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May, and in an earlier interview with the Times and Bild, has brought into question whether U.S. support for European integration -- a fundamental tenet of American foreign policy since 1946 -- will continue. In a letter to European leaders, European Council President Donald Tusk included “worrying declarations by the new American administration” as one of the challenges facing the European Union.
European leaders reacted immediately to the executive order. German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who has been directly criticized by President Trump for opening her country to an unprecedented number of refugees in 2015 -- reminded him during a phone call of the Geneva Convention obligation to accept refugees, and her spokesman stated that the chancellor found no justification for such a ban. French President Francois Hollande similarly criticized Trump’s action, saying that “the ongoing fight to defend our democracy will be effective only if we sign up to respect the founding principles and, in particular, the welcoming of refugees.” The Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, whose country is on the front lines of the refugee flow into Europe now, called for “no discrimination.” And May, who met with President Trump just last Friday, made clear through a spokesperson that her government did not agree with the new U.S. policy, and that Britain would not adopt similar measures.
Why should European leaders care whether the United States closes its borders to immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen? First, Europe has experienced enormous inflows of refugees during the last two years from many of these same countries. More than almost anywhere else, Europe is aware of the huge pool of refugees fleeing conflicts in those countries. And Europe’s own tragic history clearly demonstrates what can happen when refugees are left to their fate.
European concerns are not just rooted in a belief, long shared by the United States, that international law requires countries to offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. They are also grounded in a keen awareness of the links between peoples and across borders. The most immediate concerns regard dual citizens: German and British citizens, for example, who are also citizens of one the seven countries. British Olympic champion runner Mo Farah is also a Somali citizen and trains in the of United States; German parliamentarian Omid Nouripour, who heads the delegation for relations with the United States, was born in Iran. Europe is home to global companies that employ many citizens of the affected countries, and who would normally travel to the United States for routine business. By banning citizens of these seven countries -- including those who hold dual citizenship in Europe or who are resident in Europe -- the executive order will have an impact across European societies.
Europe is an increasingly diverse region, and much of that diversity comes from the millions of Muslims who now call the Continent home. Today, about 6 to 7 percent of the European population is Muslim, and by 2030, according to the Pew Research Center, that number will rise to about eight percent. Thus for European politicians, this is a matter of domestic politics. Their constituents will be affected, as may be family members who live in the seven selected countries. And just as Europe works to integrate many Syrian and Iraqi refugees into its society, the ban sends a message of exclusion from Europe’s main ally.
The U.S. ban has also angered European leaders because their continent is already on the front lines in the war on terrorism. ISIS will undoubtedly use the ban as a motivation to inspire future attacks, and Europe is far more vulnerable than the United States. Alienated citizens can be radicalized and others can cross Europe’s borders with relative ease.
Finally, as European leaders face their own extremist political forces, they call upon their citizens to hold strong to the values of freedom, tolerance, and diversity that have made Europe -- and its American ally -- leaders in the global community. In their eyes, this ban runs counter to those values, and they have no choice but to speak out against Washington. As a result, the casualties of this ban may include not only those immigrants denied access to the United States, but also the trust that is core to the U.S. -Europe relationship.