European Union politicians are outraged over comments made by the U.S ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell. In an interview with Breitbart News, Grenell praised the rise of conservative parties in Europe and said he wants to “empower” leaders of the right. European politicians were quick to react, claiming that the ambassador was illegitimately meddling in local political matters and trying to influence elections.
The head of the European Parliament’s Liberal Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt, said that “we have to defend Europe against Trump,” and that the U.S. “has to respect our sovereignty.” German Social Democrat Secretary General Lars Klingbeil tweeted in English: “I know you are still quite new at your post, but it is not part of the job description of an ambassador to interfere in the politics of his guest country, Mr RichardGrenell #thankyou.” Former German Social Democrat leader and former European Parliament chairman Martin Schulz went so far as to call Grenell “a far-right colonial officer.” The hysteria towards Grenell’s comments didn’t stop in Europe either: Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy called the interview “awful,” and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum claimed Grenell had implied that he wanted “to unseat the German government.”
Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said the chancellor had registered Grenell’s comments but wouldn’t comment on the matter. It is, however, very likely that a number of special parliamentary hearings, interviews, and the like will be held on the issue of the ambassador’s remarks. The narrative that Donald Trump is pursuing a secret agenda of tampering with European elections, much the way Vladimir Putin allegedly is, is subscribed to by all too many EU lawmakers.
Don’t misunderstand: Grenell’s comments don’t make for good diplomacy, and ambassadors need to approach their jobs with a certain restraint. However, a range of countries—such as Austria, Poland, Hungary, and Denmark—already have conservative governments and surely don’t object to such a statement. The outrage therefore comes more from those who find empowering conservatism undesirable, and less out of an expectation that the U.S government should be neutral on political matters.
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In the Breitbart interview, Grenell said:
There’s no question about that and it’s an exciting time for me. I look across the landscape and we’ve got a lot of work to do but I think the election of Donald Trump has empowered individuals and people to say that they can’t just allow the political class to determine before an election takes place, who’s going to win and who should run.
With the U.S. administration portraying itself as anti-establishment, it is hardly surprising that Grenell as a Trump supporter would not want to encourage non-establishment conservatives to run for office. Unless the ambassador meant that the State Department is going to financially support the campaigns of the Alternative for Deutschland and Marine Le Pen, which is ridiculous, then “empowering” does not mean anything except “encouraging.”
But most importantly, this isn’t the first time a U.S. administration has meddled in European politics. The same people who are up in arms about the comments made by Richard Grenell were comparably silent about President Obama’s remarks in April 2016 prior to the Brexit referendum. Not only did Obama declare against Brexit, he also made clear that, if Britain left the EU, a U.S.-UK trade agreement “would not happen anytime soon,” which was a political threat and a direct statement against the Leave campaign. (In a fortunate turn of events, British voters were unmoved by this rhetoric, and negotiations for a trade agreement between America and post-Brexit Britain are already on their way.)
Obama also asserted that “the world needs a united Europe,” and his EU envoy claimed that prominent Brexiteer Nigel Farage was misleading Donald Trump on the EU. Obama even wrote a column for the British Daily Telegraph in which he declared: “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence—it magnifies it. A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership.” Yet there was no condemnation from Brussels over the meddling of an American president in EU affairs.
Grenell stood by his comments in a tweet he sent Monday, calling the claim that he’d endorsed specific candidates “ridiculous” and saying the reaction only confirmed his belief that global elites and their bubbles are under threat by people like Donald Trump. For the stale and uber-diplomatic eurocrats, this will come as quite a shock—which is, essentially, what Grenell wanted to achieve in the first place.
His analysis is not incorrect: a vast array of conservative movements are currently ascendant in Europe, from center-right to euroskeptic movements to anti-immigration parties. This has made the center-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), increasingly right-wing over the years. EPP chairman Manfred Weber likes to tweet out church-themed quotes that stoke debates on “identity and dominant culture.” Still, Grenell should be careful with his definitions: if he were to endorse a group that generates intense controversy even on the right, he would not only alienate himself as a diplomat, he could end up repelling many conservatives as well.
The reaction of European politicians has been hypocritical—but Richard Grenell needs to understand the difference between being an ambassador and being a contributor on Fox News. He also needs to get a grip on the European political landscape before he makes endorsements that he might later regret.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.