Lilianne Ploumen’s bold, brave act could be the start of a concerted backlash against Washington.
- By Kim GhattasKim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power. Follow her on Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas.
Lilianne Ploumen didn’t intend to be the face of the European resistance to Donald Trump. But the headlines she triggered by her efforts to counter one of Trump’s first decisions in the White House have thrust her into that role. On social media, in meetings, on the street, and in local and international media, the Dutch minister of foreign trade and development cooperation has been showered with thanks from supporters heartened by her work to counteract the effects of Trump’s reinstatement of the Mexico City rule, which bans funding for any international NGO that performs or provides information about abortion as part of family planning.
“Worldwide support for anti-Trump action” wrote the leading Dutch daily de Volkskrant. “Lilianne Ploumen takes on Trump” cheered the Post Online, a Dutch news website. The New York Times, Time, and the Guardian, to name but a few, have written about Ploumen in recent days.
The energetic minister’s story highlights how a continent wracked by doubts about the European project is adapting to the new uncertainty about U.S. leadership caused by the Trump presidency. With the Netherlands, France, and Germany set to hold elections in the next few months, politicians are worried about the transatlantic alliance, roiled by Brexit and trying to find their footing amid a populist wave. The Netherlands will go first, holding elections on March 15, with flamboyant anti-Muslim provocateur Geert Wilders leading the charge and drawing inspiration from Trump’s victory.
For Ploumen, a longtime advocate of women’s issues, the moment to stand up came with Trump’s decision on Jan. 23 to bring back the Reagan-era Mexico City Rule, also known as the Global Gag Rule. The original executive order prohibits any NGO that receives funding from USAID from using other sources of funding to provide abortions, or even give counsel and information about safe abortions and family planning. Experience has shown that cutting access to abortions doesn’t decrease the number of abortions; it only forces women into unsanitary, unsafe procedures. Yet, Trump took the rule further by extending the ban to all federal funding. Moreover, while George W. Bush’s administration made sure to protect efforts to fight AIDS, Trump did not make that exception in his executive order.
This decision will impact all or most of the $600 million that the United States spends yearly on foreign assistance for family planning. Some estimates put the potential funding gap even higher, at several billion dollars.
The day after Trump’s memorandum was issued, Ploumen set out to fill the funding gap. She launched the SheDecides fund; the Netherlands immediately pledged $10 million. Ploumen and her team at the Dutch Foreign Ministry then organized a conference co-hosted by Belgium. Fifty-two countries showed up in Brussels on March 2, where $190 million was raised. Money in this international fund will be disbursed through existing channels, such as U.N. health and women’s organizations.
“I wanted to get the message out that my country wanted to stand up for women’s rights, and even if no one had followed suit, we would still be there and created a fund,” Ploumen told me last week, speaking on the phone from the Netherlands after a televised debate with female politicians from other major parties. Ploumen, a member of the Dutch Labor Party, PvdA, is running for a seat in Parliament. “I do think that people are very worried about our values and the way that we stand tall for these values.”
The risk, of course, is that the Netherlands and other countries that donated to the fund could ruffle the new U.S. administration. At a panel on U.S.-Dutch relations in Washington in late January, the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka delivered a scathing rebuttal to Ploumen’s actions. “It’s not a very helpful thing that the Dutch minister did, and it smacked of politicking. If the Dutch government wants a better relationship with the new White House, then spitting in the face of the new White House is not a great plan in my estimation,” she said.
Some countries declined to attend the Brussels conference out of fear it could jeopardize their ties with the new administration. For developing countries that rely on U.S. aid, support for the initiative could be a costly stance. Some countries and organizations donated anonymously — including one donor who gave roughly $50 million. But Ploumen told me she’s not afraid of a backlash in ties with the United States.
“I don’t think that standing up for women’s right can be a slap in anyone’s face,” she said. “The [U.S.] administration is entitled to make their own decisions; they are democratically elected. But I am democratically elected, too, and the Dutch government has a different vision.”
Speaking to contacts in the Netherlands, I got the impression that as the Dutch government and Foreign Ministry were still working out how to approach the new U.S. administration, not everyone was pleased with Ploumen’s move. But she felt that quick action was important.
“I did think we had to act quickly because the impact would be felt quite soon by organizations. And if [we] want to be able to counter the impact, we couldn’t wait till the summer or the end of the year,” she said.
Just over a month after Ploumen launched the SheDecides initiative, Belgium hosted the conference, with Denmark and Sweden as co-hosts. Ministers and ambassadors from countries as diverse as Portugal, Germany, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates attended, as well as several international organizations. Needless to say, the United States was absent. Ploumen described it as a global movement, with ministers from Chad and Ethiopia telling her, “Those are our values.”
The European Union has never been known for its assertiveness when faced with U.S. policies it disapproves of, but could SheDecides mark a new spirit of resistance in the face of Trump?
“We have accepted leadership by the U.S., and that leadership has achieved great things,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament from the social liberal D66 Party. “When Trump says that European partners should pay their fair share to NATO, he’s quite right. But we should also do our fair share to defend our values on the world stage.”
But the usual partners are wanting. The vacuum won’t be filled by Britain, which is busy with Brexit. There is no replacing the United States as the superpower — for now. But multilateralism requires a leader, and Europe is clearly feeling a void. Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has yet to make a mark on the world stage, and the State Department’s budget looks set for dramatic cuts. Steep reductions to U.S. funding for the United Nations are also expected.
In 2009, when Hillary Clinton went to Brussels for her first NATO meeting as secretary of the state, she was greeted with thunderous applause by diplomats relieved to see the end of the George W. Bush administration. Now, Ploumen told me, Dutch diplomats are being applauded and getting standing ovations in meetings with counterparts.
The Netherlands isn’t about to become the leader of the free world. But European fears that the United States will no longer be a partner on human rights issues or the wider liberal order have created an opportunity for centrist and liberal politicians in Europe, where the upcoming elections have become less about the economy and more about values.
In France, for example, presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron — who will probably face populist, right-wing leader Marine Le Pen in the second round — has become increasingly vocal about his support for a stronger EU, rather than hedging his position because the union doesn’t poll well.
“It’s about much more than one election in one country,” Ploumen said. “It’s about standing up when the time is there. I do think these values need stronger advocates that in [previous] years.”
So how does that translate in the polls in the Netherlands? There has been no real bump for Ploumen’s party, PvdA, but after seven weeks of Trump’s presidency and a perception of chaos in Washington, there’s certainly a slump for Wilders, whose lead is narrowing as five other parties vie for first position. There is probably more interest in the elections than there has been in a while in the Netherlands.
“Maybe people are thinking, ‘Hmm. If that’s what you get when you vote for Trump, that’s also what you get when you vote for Wilders. That’s maybe not what I really believe in,’” Ploumen said. “I do hope that people go out and vote.”
All the main parties have ruled out governing with Wilders, so there’s almost no scenario in which he could become prime minister or part of a governing coalition. How many seats he picks up, however, will help gauge the strength of the anti-establishment wave.
If the Netherlands is the first country that really takes action to counter Trump, it will also be the first country to test whether the wave of Trumpistas and populist leaders can be contained. France will be watching closely.
Photo credit: OLAF KRAAK/AFP/Getty Images