The other day, Donald Tusk, president of the European Union’s agenda-setting European Council, lashed out at US President Donald Trump in unusually tough and impolite language, given the customary diplomatic reserve of EU discourse.

Donald Trump Donald Tusk in Belgium

         Best of enemies: Tusk and Trump

Critical of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal as well as his threats to raise tariffs on European steel and aluminum imports, Tusk said of the American leader, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

That statement got all the headlines. But the key to the speech came a little later. Speaking of the EU, Tusk intoned, “What we need is more political unity and determination.”

Tusk’s cri du coeur is but the latest effort of top European Union leaders to get its 28 member states to act as one. The now chronic disunity has little to do with Trump and everything to do with internal and increasingly intractable divisions among the organization members (with the United Kingdom on its way out). It’s just that Donald Trump provides Tusk with a convenient foil in an attempt to bring Europe together.

That need is ever more urgent, at least in the eyes of European leaders who think the continent requires greater political fusion than offered by the current amalgam of sovereign states. Those key proponents include German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Macron, not to mention EU bureaucrats in Brussels.

EU aspirations for closer unity have taken several big hits during the past year. None more severe than the recent dual surge in Italy of a populist movement and an anti-immigrant party in national elections. Both are Eurosceptic and, having won a majority in parliament, are on the verge of forming a government.

The opposition of the incoming Italian coalition toward EU policies include liberalization of EU-mandated austerity, cancellation of part of Italy’s debt, opposition to sanctions on Russia and a less welcoming EU immigration policy. There’s even a mechanism afloat that would allow  Italy to dump the Euro and return to its own currency. In Italy’s case, a decade of budget limits, recession and slow growth have reduced its international debt hardly at all and drained the country of economic dynamism.

It’s not just Italy that is challenging major EU policies. Eastern European countries, notably Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, are at loggerheads with the EU over issues of immigration as well as soveriegn issues of justice reform. The Eastern Europeans grate at the notion that France and Germany set EU policies and the rest should follow. 

Normally, EU officials use vague language to encourage European unity, phrases like the need to adhere to “European values” or the desire for “solidarity.”

Trump offers something different: an outside villain available to  stimulate unity. In that sense, Tusk is performing a ritual similar to the Democratic Party in the US. In order to obscure its own divisions and electoral failures, the party unites around one thing: the need to dump (or at least dump on) Trump, whose bombast and political inconsistencies make Democratic “resistance” all the easier.

Tusk’s use of Trump as a means of forwarding European unity has its limits. The complaints of EU members long predate Trump’s arrival on the international scene. The failures of old-line centrist left and right parties run across Europe, from France to The Netherlands, Austria to Spain, Greece and now Italy.

Regarding Europen unity, Tusk declared, “To put it simply: either we are together, or we will not be at all.” It will take more than the Trump bogeyman to make it happen.

Italy’s coalition agreement for dummies.

The Tusk Doctrine.

The Atlantic on the complexities of Europe and Trump.