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  • Eric Hsu

Trump's Potential Return Prompts Europeans to Reassess Their Defense Capabilities


As Trump edges closer to clinching the 2024 Republican nomination, many in Europe are sounding the alarm about the potential threat of a second Trump presidency. Christine Lagarde, the president of the European Central Bank, described Donald Trump's election as a "clear threat" to Europe in an interview with the French public broadcaster France 2.


It's not just the head of the European Central Bank who fears a potential second Trump presidency. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned in a speech to the European Parliament that “If 2024 brings us ‘America first’ again, it will be more than ever Europe on its own.” “We should, as Europeans, not fear that prospect; we should embrace it,” he argued, saying that Europe must become “stronger, more sovereign, more self-reliant.”


Similarly, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt published a paper in the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank warning of far-reaching consequences if Trump is re-elected as US President.


"One of the biggest concerns for European policymakers is Europe’s military capabilities," said 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 European Commission. "It's very important that Europe becomes a strong actor militarily in a conventional sense, capable of addressing security issues in its immediate neighborhood."


The prospect of a second Trump presidency has rattled some officials in the EU: they are primarily concerned with a disruption of trade and a withdrawal from key security alliances with European member-states. There is concern that Trump may weaken the NATO security alliance, or leave it dormant at best. In particular, Trump’s past skepticism about the effectiveness of NATO is rattling Europe’s leaders.


During Trump’s term in office, he threatened US withdrawal from the military alliance on multiple occasions. It was also revealed that in 2020, President Trump reportedly told EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, “If Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you and to support you."


According to Josef Braml, European Director of the Trilateral Commission at the Institute for Strategic, Political, Security, and Economic Consultancy in Berlin, this indicates Trump’s hostile position towards Europe. “Trump sees Europe as an enemy.”


To prepare for this scenario, some in Europe have called for European leaders to increase their military capacity. Norbert Röttgen, a senior lawmaker from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper: “The German government must now prepare more intensively than before for Trump’s return to the White House…Europe’s freedom depends on it.”


The possible return of Trump has forced Europeans to rethink their current stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine, Europe’s military capabilities, and its own identity. Trump’s comments encouraging the Russians to “do whatever the hell they want” regarding NATO members who refuse to “pay up” have emphasized the importance of self-reliance among European nations. Currently, 20 out of 22 EU members of the alliance are on track to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, reflecting NATO’s guidelines.


One of the biggest consequences of the possible return of Trump has been Europe’s political unity. After Trump was elected in 2016, many feared the rise of an “illiberal international” order, which would have involved a close alignment of far-right European parties with Trump’s White House and Putin’s Kremlin. However, this time around, Trump would not be welcomed enthusiastically in most European countries.


Given these developments, a repositioning has occurred for many right-wing parties in Europe. Most notably, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has cautiously moved away from her previous Euroscepticism and has severed all of Italy’s past ties with Vladimir Putin. In Poland, the return of Donald Tusk, a Europhile centrist, has united an electorate traditionally skeptical of close integration within Europe to one more supportive of a geographically cohesive Europe.


Meanwhile, it is projected that the European Parliament elections in June this year will take a sharp turn to the right. Based on polling done by the European Council on Foreign Relations, far-right populist parties are likely to top the polls in nine member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia). Right-wing members of the European Parliament are projected to take around 25 percent of all the seats. And for the first time, the right-wing political bloc is expected to have more seats than the center-right political bloc and the center-left political bloc combined.


In many countries, the Trump threat could potentially mobilize voters and provide crucial support to candidates rallying behind a common European identity. As America becomes increasingly isolationist on the world stage, European leaders should expect future U.S. administrations to be less Atlanticist, not more. Given that Europe has long relied on the U.S. for its own defense capabilities, this has left Europe’s security reliant on the whims of the American voter.


For years, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a federal European army, one that is capable of countering a range of threats and less dependent on the U.S. “What Europe lacks most today is a common strategic culture in defense,” he said in a 2017 speech at Sorbonne University in Paris.


Now, it appears that countries in the European Union have taken heed of Macron’s words. Not necessarily because of Macron’s words, but rather because of a series of events that have unfolded since. The war in Ukraine, fears of a decreasing U.S. appetite for arming Ukraine, as well as insecurities regarding the U.S. commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, have led Europeans to begin asking the tough questions about whether Europe is capable of defending itself.


According to polling conducted by YouGov, support for a European army has increased since 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The country that exhibited the largest jump is Britain, which showed a ten percent increase in support for an EU army. There is also a significant increase in support in countries like Sweden and Finland, with both countries experiencing a nine percent increase to 48 percent and 53 percent, respectively.


While the idea of an EU army remains distant, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has ignited a debate about the significance of NATO in terms of national security. Finland, which only became a NATO member in April 2023, has exhibited a 26 percent increase in favorability toward NATO, rising from 45 percent to 72 percent. In Sweden, which also applied for NATO membership around the same time as Finland, the percentage of respondents who claimed that NATO is important to the nation’s defense has increased from 54 percent to 63 percent. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has proven to be decisive in highlighting the urgency of Europe’s defense capabilities.


Should Trump lose the election this November, it could provide a sigh of relief for Europe and its leaders. However, regardless of the outcome of the US presidential election in November, the imminent threat of Trump has dramatically changed the discourse in Europe and has helped reignite the debate regarding the stability of the trans-Atlantic order.


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