Photographer: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Worried of Trump Effect in Europe, Mr. Ehler Goes to Washington

  • European Union lawmakers making last-minute trip to U.S.
  • Parliamentarians seeking ‘clear separation’ of political ideas

A European Union lawmaker in charge of U.S. relations -- on the job for less than a week -- booked last-minute tickets to Washington as EU leaders seek clues to the policy direction of a new U.S. administration rocked by turbulence.

European Parliament member Christian Ehler will lead a three-member team this week to meet representatives of Congress, the State Department and the National Security Council.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November and indications of Russian meddling in western elections have rocked the EU, as Germany, France and the Netherlands all face surging populist parties in their own national ballots this year. Ehler and his colleagues will communicate the need for a coherent U.S. foreign policy message that’s shielded from anti-establishment forces.

“We want to have a clear separation between the political positions of the United States of America and ideological movements in the United States.” Ehler, a Christian Democratic ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in an interview in Strasbourg, France.

Russian Influence

Ehler is traveling just days after Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis made their international debuts in Europe as the U.S. administration seeks to put forth a unified voice through the turmoil of its first weeks in power. Uncertainty abroad adds to domestic European jitters as the populist forces that propelled Trump to victory threaten establishment parties closer to home, starting with Dutch elections next month.

In comments at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Pence sought to reassure EU leaders about the U.S. commitment to Europe, saying the U.S. “will remain your greatest ally.” Trump had earlier derided the bloc and called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete.”

The specter of Russian influence in western, democratic ballots is cause for additional concern for Ehler.

To read about U.S. efforts to reassure European allies, click here

The U.S. intelligence community concluded that Russia sought to sway the American election in Trump’s favor and France’s cyber-security watchdog said those same hacking groups were active in France. The FBI and other spy agencies have opened probes into links that Trump associates had with Russia and last week, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after misrepresenting contacts with Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin has denied accusations of a Russian hacking campaign aimed at bolstering Trump.

Right-Wing Campaigns

“If you would come up with a situation where, let’s say, Russian money is feeding right-wing campaigns in Europe and an ultra-conservative, libertarian, sometimes-xenophobic social platform would be the intellectual backbone for social media campaigns in Europe, and this would be related to personalities in the U.S. government, that would be very problematic,” Ehler said.

The 53-year-old Ehler, who comes from Munich and once worked as a legislative assistant in the U.S. Senate, said the visit may also enable his team to get a better sense of future American tax and trade policies amid a protectionist tilt by Trump.

Ehler holds out hope that parts of the planned Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which Trump has indicated he’ll abandon, could be salvaged by Congress and that some of the administration’s tax proposals won’t come to fruition. “The system will sweat out to some extent the most exotic economic proposals because it’s not in the American interest,” he said.

“The broader trans-Atlantic network is now responding in a relatively bipartisan way,” he said. “The benefit of practically half a century of cooperation is that not everything depends on the present government or administration.”

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