Even as a loser, Trump stirs unrest in Europe

US president's refusal to concede causes red faces in politics in Estonia and Slovenia.

Even as a loser, Trump stirs unrest in Europe

Donald Trump’s presidency often caused turmoil for European allies, and his refusal to accept election defeat is now roiling the internal politics of some EU countries.

In Estonia, Interior Minister Mart Helme resigned on Monday, and his son Martin, the first deputy prime minister and finance minister, was under pressure to quit, after they strongly backed Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. Some Estonian officials said the controversy could even lead to collapse of the governing coalition.

Meanwhile in Slovenia, Prime Minister Janez Janša continued to promote pro-Trump conspiracy theories, even suggesting in a tweet on Monday that Pfizer had held back positive news about its coronavirus vaccine in order to harm Trump’s re-election campaign.

Slovenian President Borut Pahor and other officials have gone into full-fledged damage-control mode after Janša, an anti-migration populist, prematurely declared Trump the winner, and then followed up by criticizing the U.S. media for calling the race for Joe Biden before the Trump campaign’s legal disputes could be heard in the courts.

Janez Lenarčič, the EU commissioner for crisis management, who is Slovenian, criticized Janša for harming relations.

“People holding the highest executive offices should be aware of the fact that what they say in public, and it includes social network platforms like Twitter, resonates, and that prudence should be the rule because of that,” Lenarčič said in an interview. “I’m afraid that some of those tweets that we saw did not contribute to the positive image of Slovenia in Brussels or Washington.”

The political tensions in Estonia and Slovenia were the most obvious manifestations of the awkwardness and unease that Trump has created by refusing to concede to Biden, the Democratic challenger and former vice president.

Longtime U.S. allies were left with the uncomfortable choice of setting aside diplomatic protocol and congratulating Biden before the final results were certified, or appearing to endorse Trump’s wildly conspiratorial and logically tenuous allegations of widespread fraud.

Trump claimed malfeasance despite strong results for many other Republican Congressional candidates who defied the polls that predicted an overwhelming Democratic sweep, and the president even alleged potential cheating in states like Georgia and Arizona, which have Republican governors. Most of the Trump campaign’s initial legal challenges have failed.

But Trump’s allegations of fraud created an easy opening for longtime critics of the United States and Western democracies, notably Russia, to point fingers and fan the flames.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Russian leader would not congratulate Biden given “ongoing legal procedures” but would wait instead for the final results. Putin’s refusal to recognize the results stood in stark contrast to his quick acceptance of the outcome of elections in Belarus that were widely denounced as fraudulent and his swift congratulations to the strongman leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, sought to twist the knife further, telling the Tass news agency that she had prohibited mail-in voting in Russia, even though it is permitted by law, precisely because elections in the U.S. had shown that voting by mail “opens immense scope for possible falsifications.”

Hedging their bets

Trump’s refusal to accept defeat led some European leaders who have supported him to issue carefully hedged statements.

Polish President Andrzej Duda congratulated Biden “on a successful presidential campaign” but also added, “As we await the nomination by the Electoral College, Poland is determined to upkeep high-level and high-quality PL-US strategic partnership.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who publicly voiced support for Trump’s re-election, waited until a day after most of his EU colleagues to congratulate Biden.

“Allow me to congratulate you on the successful presidential campaign. I wish you good health and continuous successes in carrying out your extremely responsible mission,” Orbán said, according to the state news agency MTI.

In the U.K., there was widespread speculation about what Trump’s defeat would mean for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who enjoyed friendly relations with Trump, and for the country’s future given Biden’s Irish heritage and the Democrats’ general disapproval of Brexit.

And even some European leaders who had clearly rooted for Biden voiced some discomfort about issuing congratulations to him amid a disputed result.

A senior EU official stressed that European Council President Charles Michel had worked with national capitals to coordinate their congratulatory messages “following the result in Pennsylvania, while showing respect for the electoral process.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to speak for much of the EU on Monday when she said Germany looked forward to working with Biden.

Merkel praised Biden’s “decades of experience in both domestic and foreign policy,” noted that “he knows Germany and Europe well” and added: “I remember good encounters and conversations with him.”

“The United States of America and Germany, as part of the European Union, must stand together in order to face the great challenges of our time,” Merkel said.

Estonian embarrassment

Recognition of the importance of the relationship with Washington only added to the controversy and unease in tiny Estonia, which has long relied heavily on NATO and the U.S., as the most powerful member of the alliance, for security guarantees.

The father-and-son duo from the far-right Conservative People’s Party enraged many other Estonian politicians by embracing Trump’s claims during a radio interview on Sunday.

“In my opinion, there is no question at all that these elections are rigged,” Martin Helme said on TRE’s “Let’s Talk About It” program. “I think all normal people should speak out against it. There is no point in talking about any kind of democracy or the rule of law if elections can be so rudely, so blatantly and massively rigged.”

By Monday morning, Mart Helme had resigned, accusing the media of  “slander and lies,” according to news agency ERR. His son was clinging to his position as finance minister.

Umras Paet, an Estonian member of the European Parliament, said that if the younger Helme didn’t resign, he hoped the entire government would collapse. “It’s really unfortunate to get this kind of attention,” Paet said in an interview.

“This party and of course these ministers, they come from the same political family as our majority of European extreme-right parties, and also including the fans of Donald Trump,” Paet said. “They always have been huge fans of Donald Trump so during these last years they always publicly supported whatever Trump did.”

Paet said the far-right party also espoused homophobic views and that the comments were particularly upsetting because Biden had been a staunch supporter of Estonia becoming a member of NATO.

“Practically, of course, they understand it is not mainstream, but at the same time, the fact is that those guys and the party are still in the government,” he said, adding: “Estonia awarded Biden with the highest decoration that we have thanking him.”

Paet continued, “To the world, of course I would also like to say … it is embarrassing, it is a shame and it is wrong what these guys said.”

Jacopo Barigazzi, Joshua Posaner and Nette Nöstlinger contributed reporting.