The world needs more Justin Trudeau? A view from Europe

Canada Politics

[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau co-chairs a round table with Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan at the United Nations in New York on Monday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick]

When Barack Obama visited Parliament in June, he declared: “The world needs more Canada” to rapturous applause. And the world has and will get more of Canada when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gives his maiden speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday and co-costs a leaders’ summit in New York.

Living abroad, you get the feeling Canada’s current government and leader is the envy of much of the world — at least at street level. Since the election, as a Canadian living in Europe, I’ve gotten a lot of “I wish we had leaders like Justin” when Europeans (as well as Aussies and Kiwis) find out I’m from Canada.

Trudeau’s got some powerful allies, including Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, who has praised his economic policies and hopes “that this energy, this passion for openness, can be sufficiently contaminating, including for the European Union.”

When Trudeau took office last year, it was with much fanfare and world attention: his gender equal cabinet, more Indigenous MPs than ever before as well as Muslim MPs and a campaign that emphasized government investment. He also revealed an open agenda — embracing 25,000 Syrian refugees with more to come — and spoke of a Canada of “shared values [of] openness, respect, compassion … [in the] search for equality and justice.”

“I remember a lot of [liberal Germans] half-jokingly say ‘Let’s move to Canada’ on their Facebook posts,” recalled British-German journalist Ben Knight, who covers political issues and hosts an occasional English-language podcast on German news.

“They definitely felt some of Justin Trudeau’s post-election euphoria,” he told Yahoo Canada News. “People saw him as the New Obama — young, good-looking, athletic — and Obama is still really popular in Germany.”

For British citizen David McDermott Trudeau’s platform stands out in an increasingly right-wing, anti-migrant Europe. Though, the screenwriter admits he had never heard of Trudeau until the day after the election on Oct. 19 and that’s when he got curious.

“He’s a beacon of hope for centre-left people in Europe because here’s a G8 leader who’s not afraid to implement an anti-austerity policy,” McDermott told Yahoo Canada News. “Across Europe, governments are cutting public services, welfare and social support. The poorest are paying for the debt that was created by the banks.”

For McDermott, a card-carrying member of the U.K.’s Labour Party for 25 years (since he was in his late teens), Trudeau’s victory has its bitter parallels.

“It’s with despair that I remember our election in May 2015 because the Labour Party’s agenda was almost like Trudeau’s policies and we lost,” divulged McDermott, who moved to Berlin last June. “The Conservatives increased their majority despite having dismantled public services and driven many into poverty. THAT was my final straw.”

McDermott called Trudeau brave for going against the neo-Liberal agenda, “at least rhetorically.”

“The Labour Party’s rhetoric was apologetic, half-hearted,” McDermott noted. “The party needs to look at Trudeau and see how much better his [platform] is communicated.”

In fact, more than a year later, Labour seems to be taking cues from Trudeau’s campaign book, according to The Guardian newspaper.

‘Minister for Sexiness’

Trudeau’s easy, telegenic ways with the public has not gone unnoticed in world media. Following his triumph, stories promoted his “sunny ways,” including his personal welcome of Syrian refugees at a Canadian airport, his yoga prowess and most recently, his shirtless appearances on social media. It got media outlets excited.

The New York Times announced in the spring it would expand its global reach and said it was opening up an office in Toronto while the BBC, which utilized freelancers in Canada, posted a full-time feature writing position in Toronto.

“I find that the media on this side of the pond had been generally favourable towards Justin Trudeau because of his progressive stance on diversity, welcoming the refugees [and] attending gay pride,” Claudia Chwalisz, a Canadian policy consultant living in London, told Yahoo Canada News in an email.

“To many progressives, he represents a young, forward-looking vision of a successful, open society. There aren’t many European leaders today willing to make a positive case for immigration, diversity, openness [and] feminism.”

McDermott points out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her CDU party are now suffering in local and state elections due to her open policy towards refugees. Germany welcomed about 1.5 million refugees between August 2015 and January 2016. Over the weekend, in multicultural Berlin, the extreme rightwing, anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany party (AfD) took 14.2 per cent of the regional votes.

Knight is all too aware of the German reality: “I doubt if most Germans would vote for [Trudeau] to be the next chancellor.”

Beyond the right-wing shift in European, McDermott says Trudeau hasn’t got enough political meat to win over most Europeans.

“He doesn’t transmit culturally to Europeans even though they like him,” elucidates McDermott. “For me, he’s got to get past the narrative of Minister for Sexiness.”

Indeed, that glossy image is about to get a repaint. Trudeau held late summer retreats with his cabinet and parliamentary staff and focused on the serious tasks ahead in Year 2, according to the latest New York Times article.

Focus on ‘Danish values’

In Denmark, Alice Buchhave describes an atmosphere of xenophobia and a right-wing government in which the immigration minister has emphasized “Danish values.”

“It’s sad,” she told Yahoo Canada News from her home in Aarhus, the second-biggest city in Denmark, a country of 5.6 million. “The message is ‘We don’t care about the world. We just need to focus on our own lives.’”

Buchhave says it’s refreshing to see a leader like Trudeau who is “not the typical uptight politician wearing suits all the time.”

“It’s nice to see [a leader] do something differently in what is seen as a successful country — let’s have more women, more Indigenous people and more people of colour in government. Why not?”

There is a bit of light in Danish politics in the form of Uffe Elbaek, a gay Liberal politician who launched his own party, the Alternative.  

“He’s all for creativity and being generous,” explained Buchhave, a teacher at a technical college. “He listens but he gets ridiculed [for] being too tolerant and open. He did, however, get into Parliament!”

Another European politician with Trudeau-like qualities is France’s young economics minister Emmanuel Macron. Canadian Chwalisz mentioned Macron in an article for the New Statesmen, which focused on Trudeau’s winning ways.

“He’s attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future [with his own movement ‘En Marche!’],” she wrote.

As for Britain, McDermott is less positive, in light of Brexit, the continuing rise of anti-migrant sentiment and the Labour Party’s limp standings in the polls.

“[Labour] has elected a PR disaster of a leader in Jeremy Corbyn,” McDermott complained. “He doesn’t play the game as well as Trudeau. British progressives are so inward-looking.”

While it appears Trudeau has a lot of fans, journalist Knight cautions that most of European media is focused on Europe’s problems so Canada’s history and politics are often given a light touch.

“The coverage here is still ‘He’s a handsome man with a nice smile and he’s really PC,’” Knight said.