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Is Europe Ready for Trump 2.0?

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When Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in November 2020 and brought his tumultuous presidency to an end, European leaders breathed a sigh of relief. However, almost four years on, that relief is giving way to a sobering reality: come January 2025, Donald Trump might very well be back in the Oval Office. 


It’s a nightmare scenario for the EU. Few have forgotten Trump having called Brussels a “hellhole”, the EU a “foe”, or Germany’s Angela Merkel a “loser” (POLITICO). His absence has thus been welcomed by Europeans, many of whom simply cannot imagine the political return of a man currently facing four criminal trials. The fact that President Biden has established himself as one of the most pro-European U.S. presidents in recent history further served to cleanse the lingering bitterness of the Trump era, almost making it seem as if it had all just been a bad dream.


However, as Biden faces the final year of his first term and the 2024 campaign season is well underway, European officials have no time to spare in preparing for a potential second Trump presidency. In fact, if current polls are to be believed, Trump has the slight edge, underlining the fact that the EU no longer has the luxury of dismissing the possibility of his return.


If Trump is to secure a second term, he is likely to be far more unpredictable, unhinged, and impulsive than he was in his first. His recent remarks saying that he would encourage Vladimir Putin “to do whatever the hell [he wants]” to NATO allies not paying two percent of GDP for their defense rang alarm bells in Brussels and forced members of the US delegation to the Munich Security Conference to engage in damage control (PBS). Reports of Trump having told EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2020 that “if Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you” further ignited fears of how committed the US would be to upholding its NATO commitments in the future (Reuters). As such, EU officials are urgently seeking to bolster European defense capacities and strengthen strategic alliances, including through initiatives to enhance military communication among member states.


Military spending has since reached record levels among EU members, amassing €240bn in 2022 (6% YoY growth). Especially Germany has recently committed to reversing its long-held defense spending restraint, with Chancellor Scholz confirming in Munich that “Germany will invest 2% of its GDP on defense in the 2020s, in the 2030s, and beyond” (EDA).


Further, numerous European officials have emphasized the initiatives already in motion by EU governments to strengthen their strategic autonomy. They highlighted that European nations have not only collaborated on substantial weapons shipments to Ukraine, surpassing the United States in the total value of support provided, but have also notably increased ammunition production within Europe itself.


Regardless of whether or not Trump wins re-election, such measures will strengthen European security and provide long-term strategic independence. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte put it simply: “Stop moaning and whining and nagging about Trump … We do not spend more on defense or ramp up ammunition production because Trump might come back. We have to do this because we want to do this, because this is in our own interests” (Reuters).


In addition to security policy, the EU should brace for further shocks to trade policy. Under President Trump, the U.S. imposed tariffs on European goods and threatened additional measures, leading to retaliatory actions from the EU. As such, EU trade negotiators are exploring avenues for dialogue with their American counterparts while simultaneously seeking to diversify trade partnerships to mitigate reliance on the U.S. market. 


Europe has the capability to partially insulate itself from Trump's protectionist measures through the furtherance of trade pacts with other nations and regional blocs. Additionally, it is critical to enhance its internal single market, focusing especially on sectors such as finance, digital technology, and services. According to ECB President Christine Lagarde, a strengthened single market, fostering the seamless movement of goods, services, people, and capital across all 27 member states, would streamline access to funding for smaller enterprises and foster an environment more conducive to innovation (AtlantikBruecke).


The risks posed by a potential second Trump administration, however, extend beyond matters of defense and trade. Should Trump secure reelection, the already strained relationship between the United States and China is likely to deteriorate even further. This could place European companies operating in both regions in a precarious position: Trump's threats of secondary sanctions might compel European firms to halt operations in China or coerce European governments to restrict Chinese investments within Europe. Moreover, Trump's pledge to impose a ten percent tariff on all imports, should he win a second term and receive congressional approval, would have a significant impact on European export industries (WP).


Europeans are, and should remain, committed to preserving the cherished transatlantic alliance, but they must also swiftly prepare for the possibility of its weakening. Above all, there is an urgent need for a decisive shift in attitude towards Europe's defense. In the short term, European leaders must significantly increase the production and acquisition of essential military supplies to support Ukraine. Kyiv requires an estimated two million rounds of ammunition annually, along with replacement artillery barrels and air defense systems (ForeignAffairs). With some of the world's leading armament manufacturers located in Europe, bolstering European capacity is both feasible and financially viable, although it will require meticulous planning and coordination.


Even if Trump fails to secure victory in November, Europe faces significant challenges ahead. It may find itself unable to depend on the United States unconditionally, regardless of who occupies the White House. The United States has already been pursuing foreign policy actions without consulting Europe, particularly in the realm of economics. For instance, President Biden's signature Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), though aimed at curbing inflation, also exhibited protectionist tendencies by incentivizing European firms to relocate to the United States given generous subsidies (ForeignAffairs). Further, American lawmakers from both sides of the isle have expressed intentions to prioritize the Indo-Pacific region in their future policies, potentially diverting U.S. military focus away from Europe towards the Middle East and Asia. The entrenched partisanship within the U.S. Congress is likely to pose a significant obstacle to fostering a strong transatlantic relationship. Additionally, the internal challenges facing America's democracy are poised to consume more political attention and resources, diverting focus from European priorities.


What is clear now is that Europe can no longer consider Trump and his America First doctrine as a distant memory. Currently, the EU, whether intentionally or not, is not placing enough emphasis on preparing for the potential ramifications of a second Trump term, particularly when it comes to defense policy. Ulrich Speck, a Berlin-based foreign policy analyst, has argued: “It’s a form of sleepwalking. We have [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s form of sleepwalking, which dreams of autonomy and sovereignty. We have German sleepwalking, which is denial. And then we have British sleepwalking, which is detachment” (POLITICO).


Such denialism is no longer appropriate. European leaders are banking on a potential second Biden presidency to safeguard the transatlantic alliance and afford them the time and backing needed to assume greater responsibility on the world stage. However, there is no guarantee that such support and time will be given. A second Trump term would further destabilize Europe, which is already grappling with significant challenges. While Europeans will respect America's choice of its next president, the onus is on Europe to take proactive measures now to fortify its security and economy. This entails bolstering the EU's influence and addressing institutional deficiencies that hinder its ability to lead in a world marked by significant geopolitical tensions. 


For now, Europeans can only speculate which America will emerge in November – and how Europe will evolve in response.


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