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Can Europe cope with another Donald Trump presidency?

Matthias von Hein
January 27, 2024

Opinion polls and political pundits agree that Donald Trump has a real chance of winning back the White House. For many in Europe, this is a worrying scenario.

Donald Trump gesturing with both hands
Europe is watching Donald Trump's progress through the Republican primaries with growing concernImage: Mike Segar/REUTERS

The more likely it seems that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party's nominee for the US presidency, the louder the voices become that warn Europe to prepare itself for a second Trump term in the White House.

In an interview with French public broadcaster France 2, Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, described the possible election of Donald Trump as a "clear threat" to Europe.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told the European Parliament in mid-January that "if 2024 brings us 'America First' again, it is really more than ever 'Europe on its own.'"

In a paper published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt predicted far-reaching global consequences if Trump were reelected.

"The US would abandon climate policy and expand investments in fossil fuels. NATO would be — at best — dormant. There would be cozy get-togethers with buddies Putin and Orban. Trade wars would harden," he wrote.

Trump wins New Hampshire primary

How to prepare for a Trump 2.0 scenario

Sudha David-Wilp, the director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank funded by the US government, the German government and the EU Commission, told DW that her main concern was over Europe's military capabilities.

"It's very important that Europe becomes a strong actor, militarily, in a conventional sense, that it's able to take care of security issues in its immediate neighborhood," David-Wilp said.

In addition, she said, Europe must also "be a strong partner for Asia, for Europe, when it comes to warding off external threats from authoritarian forces, and also get strong economically to prepare for potential protectionist measures from a second President Trump term."  

Jürgen Hardt, a conservative lawmaker with Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, said he fears that Germany is ill-prepared for a second term with Trump.

Hardt, who is the foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU)parliamentary group, told DW he is critical of Germany's foreign policy. 

"We have done far too little in the last three years to help Joe Biden prove that his cooperative style with Europe is more successful than Trump's confrontational style. We have not tried to develop a China strategy together, nor have we stuck to our agreements on defense spending. It was only under the pressure of the war in Ukraine that anything moved," Hardt said.

‘Germans are bad, very bad’ (2017)

Troubled relationship with NATO

Trump's skepticism towards NATO is also causing concern in Europe. During his first term in office, Trump threatened on multiple occasions to withdraw from the Western defense alliance.

EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton recently added to the uncertainty when he related a revealing anecdote to the European Parliament: In 2020, US President Trump allegedly told EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that "if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you and to support you."

For four years, Trump has skirted the issue. In mid-January, when asked whether he would provide military support to European NATO partners if he won the election, Trump said it "depends if they treat us properly."

Asked directly about his commitment to the NATO alliance, he added, "NATO has taken advantage of our country. The European countries took advantage."

In 2019, Trump remarked that "Europe treats us worse than China." 

Josef Braml, European Director of the Trilateral Commission at the Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy in Berlin, sees this as an indication that "Trump sees Europe as an enemy." 

Braml believes Europe only has one chance to hold its own in a Trumpist world order: "Europe must act as a united player." 

But how can European countries achieve unity, given their many particular interests? Braml thinks money is the solution. "We have to think bigger — and incur debt together in Europe, support individual states financially, and impose conditions on them in return," he explained.

Angela Merkel, surrounded by G7 leaders and assistants, leans over a table to address Donald Trump, sitting with arms folded
Former Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US President Donald Trump had a tense relationshipImage: Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung/dpa/picture alliance

Concerns about a nuclear umbrella

"With money from shared European borrowing, we could also afford our own defense," Braml added. "We buy F-35 fighter jets from the US so we can keep participating in nuclear defense. But what will nuclear sharing be worth if Trump moves back into the White House?" he asked. 

"We should prepare for this now, and agree with France and Poland on more extensive military and economic cooperation that also involves other European countries," he said.

But CDU politician Hardt believes that a scenario in which Trump withdraws Europe's nuclear umbrella is unrealistic. After all, nobody wants a new nuclear arms race, he said, adding that if the US was to remove its protective shield, the European countries would inevitably consider expanding  their own nuclear arsenals.

Either way, Trump's reelection looks like it would become a litmus test not only for trans-Atlantic relations, but also for European cohesion.

This article was originally written in German.

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