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NPR's Foreign Correspondents On Trump's Criticism Of Europe's Immigration Policy


President Trump golfed at his resort in Scotland today, taking a break before his big meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But this bit of quiet comes after President Trump dropped verbal bombshells on U.S. allies this past week. At a face-to-face breakfast meeting, he lashed out at Germany for its energy imports from Russia. Then the British tabloid The Sun published an explosive interview with President Trump that took several shots at his host, Prime Minister Theresa May, criticizing her approach to negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union, or the Brexit, even suggesting that a rival of hers would make a good prime minister. And he blasted Europe's immigration policy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad. I think you're losing your culture.

MARTIN: Now, we know how all this is playing out in the U.S. Social media has gone wild. Top Democrats called the president's conduct overseas an embarrassment. But we wondered how this is being received overseas, so we've called several NPR foreign correspondents. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London.

Frank, hello.


MARTIN: Martin Kaste is in Berlin.

Hi, Martin.


MARTIN: And Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome.

Hi, Sylvia.


MARTIN: So I'm going to start with Frank because President Trump is still in Britain, and Britain is still reacting to Trump's visit. Frank, you just went to two very different rallies. There was an anti-Trump rally yesterday. I think a lot of people have seen the pictures from that and heard your reports from that. Today, though, there was a rally of a far-right group, and I was wondering what these two rallies tell us about what's going on in England right now and how they view the U.S. president.

LANGFITT: Well, it's really interesting because yesterday was tens of thousands. And I - it's hard to know exactly how many who came out. And it was a wide range of groups. You had Marxists, socialists, labor unions and sort of multicultural London coming out against President Trump. And then, today, you had a far, far smaller mix of a pro-Trump rally and also a far-right group that was protesting the jailing of a far-right activist named Tommy Robinson. And what was very interesting, I found, is that the rally on Friday was sort of all over the place in terms of messages.

The rally today - much, much smaller - was very focused on exactly what President Trump was talking about - this concept of culture. And what they're really talking about, I think, is really here - white English culture. And the message seemed to resonate. I was talking with a guy named Hassan Yilmaz (ph), which is pretty interesting - an Englishman of Turkish descent. And he said Trump's mantra of America first should really try to apply here. And here's what he said.


HASSAN YILMIZ: His message is, first, look after the people at home. If you can't look after home, and your home's in pieces, well, how are you going to build a foundation on that?

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I was wondering, Frank - and I'm going to ask the others this as well - is, is there a Trump effect? Does President Trump's presence encourage the strains that you're talking about - this anti-immigrant strain, this - what some consider a white nationalist strain - or does it have the reverse effect, which causes people to kind of rally around Theresa May or rally around the other side? Because, as you said, there was such a collection of people who came out against him. Does it, in a way, have an opposite effect?

LANGFITT: I think it has the same effect, in some ways, that it does have in America, and that is a polarizing effect. The people who agree with him do feel emboldened, and they also like to hear a very powerful man speaking their language.

MARTIN: And, along the same lines, let's go to Martin now, where the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is another leader who's struggling to hold her government together. And President Trump publicly attacked her - at least, he attacked Germany - at NATO last week, and it seemed to come out of nowhere. And the same question to you, Martin - is there a Trump effect?

KASTE: Well, I think if the question is, you know, does Trump's bombshells somehow shore up Angela Merkel and her ruling coalition, I don't think it does. I think it might actually have the opposite effect. And it sort of leaves her without anywhere to go.

And let me explain this. I mean, you have to keep in mind the history of Germany. American presidents since World War II always sort of invited Germany to be part of something international - an international project. It was sort of a way out of the - what had become for them this dead end of nationalism, you know. And that gave conservative parties the ability to sort of have a substitute for nationalism. You know, they said, we are part of this big, international project of initially anti-communism but eventually kind of internationalism - the EU, NATO. That is where Germany's pride is, right?

Well, now, all of a sudden, there is this sense that maybe that's wobbly. If the American president now is saying, eh, it's every country for itself, well, that leaves her with kind of nowhere to go. There's no backstop to this rising tide of nationalism which we're seeing here in Germany, too. You know, the most important opposition party now is the Alternative fur Deutschland - this, you know, far-right group that talks a lot about making the borders mean something, about protecting the culture - that kind of thing. You know, if she can't counter with we're part of this international project, she's kind of stuck.

MARTIN: You know, the number of migrants entering Germany is way down from 2015, as we understand it, when the chancellor agreed to let in hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum. So why is migration still such an issue?

KASTE: Yes, the number of migrants has tapered off. They're still coming, but it's much, much lower. But all the million or so people who came during that big surge are still here, in the main. There's a sense among some in the German public that assimilation doesn't look like it's going to happen very easily and that it was a mistake. They're here and now what?

MARTIN: So let's bring Sylvia Poggioli in. She's in Italy, where Donald Trump seems to like the government. He tweeted that Italy's new prime minister is, quote, "a really great guy" and, quote, "the people of Italy got it right." So, Sylvia, tell us about the new Italian government, and what is it that Donald Trump seems to like so much?

POGGIOLI: Well, it's interesting that he chose the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who really is a kind of a cipher. Nobody - he came out of nowhere. The person who's really been totally dominating the scene is Matteo Salvini, the interior minister and the leader of the league. And he's ordered all NGO rescue ships banned from bringing migrants to Italian ports. He ordered out of the blue the idea that there should be a census, a registry of Roma people, which also had echoes of Mussolini's fascist laws against Jews in 1938.

The migration issue is dominant. And yet, as you mentioned, the number of migrants arriving has dropped tremendously. There's been something like an 80 percent drop this year over the same period last year. So it's - a lot of it is rhetoric, and the fact is that Salvini is gaining popularity in the polls.

MARTIN: So, Sylvia, let me ask you this question - others can jump in if they want to - is that, unlike the United States - I mean, the United States, the big conversation right now is about the southern border. But, in Europe, if you push migrants from one place, they go to another place in Europe. And I'm just wondering, how are people thinking about this? Or are they just not thinking about it? They're really only thinking in - sort of in terms of their own national borders?

POGGIOLI: Well, no. Certainly, Salvini - he's been insisting that the EU has to consider Italy's border as the southern border of Europe. And he's not wrong in that because Italy has definitely taken the brunt of this huge, massive migration flow over the last few years. And this was one of the reasons the populists did so well in the elections in March - because there's huge resentment against Brussels, the EU for having left Italy alone - on the one hand, on the migrant issue, on the other, in strict austerity rules, which have really prevented the economy from picking up. So the resentment towards Brussels and the EU is very strong.

MARTIN: So let me go back to Frank. In the U.S., when President Trump's behavior is discussed, some people say, well, he may be crude in his utterances, but, at the end of the day, he gets results, you know. And then other people say, well, yeah, but he's exacerbating social divisions that are ultimately going to be very destructive. For example, his poll numbers among women are very poor.

So I wanted to ask because gender issues have been raised in the case of both national leaders of England and Germany, who are both women, and some people say, is part of the problem here that he has a problem dealing with strong women? Or is it that this is just his style, and, at the end of the day, U.S. relations with these countries are going to end up in a place that's mutually beneficial because, at the end of the day, the substance is what matters? Frank?

LANGFITT: Yeah. I actually feel like you can find positions here that match those you'd find in the United States. So he criticized and basically told Prime Minister May how she should handle Brexit. I think people felt there was a bit of mansplaining (laughter) in there. And then he showed up late for the queen of England and walked in front of her, kind of eclipsed her. And, whether she's the queen or not, she's also a 92-year-old woman (laughter), and maybe you should have shown more respect. That was certainly a feeling here.

On the other hand, you'll talk to people who are supporters of him - and they're a smaller number - who actually would say, I don't care about everything else. He has done what he promised to do, and he's worked on the issue that I care the most about.

MARTIN: That's Frank Langfitt in London, Martin Kaste in Berlin and Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Thank you all so much for talking with us.

KASTE: A pleasure.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Michel.

POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.