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What Europeans Should Want From the Trump Administration

It is commonplace to claim that external shocks jolt Europe into action writes Rosa Balfour. There have been plenty since 2008 — external and internal — and none seem to have had that effect. It is beyond question that Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election is a wake-up call. In Europe, despite its history of populist leaders and some who are doing quite well today, Trump is not liked. Pew research showed that 85 percent of Europeans distrusted Trump. And the polite congratulations of most current European leaders do not emanate much warmth.

Whether Europe will rise to the Trump challenge is not a foregone conclusion. Of course, it should. Trump’s victory has manifold implications for Europe and the transatlantic relationship, many of which we will discover as Trump turns his electoral campaign pledges into policy. He is likely to focus first on domestic politics, but events will draw his attention outside. Europe needs to prepare for all scenarios: security and defense, European unity, foreign policy, trade, climate change, the basics of transatlantic cooperation, are all up for a potential shake-up which will leave European states and institutions struggling to adjust.

For Washington, the key question will be whether Europe will step up as transatlantic partner or become a liability. Seen from Europe, both are possible. European leaders are putting up a united front, but the realities are that the trend toward fragmentation is strong. National capitals are pushing back on Brussels as a center of regulatory power. The European Union institutions are no longer performing their historical role of consensus-builders and their legitimacy is seriously questioned. The U.K.’s looming departure underscores existing disparities in Europe, strengthening Germany’s leadership, which alone cannot solve Europe’s ailments.

Seen from Washington, Trump will need to weigh up how important a solid Europe will be in the face of his other foreign policy priorities. As his predecessors, Trump has consistently demanded that Europeans take a larger share of the global security burden. This is not a new demand and Europeans have, slowly, come to realise the need for this in the wake of the Brexit vote. It should not be forgotten that security and defense is the field in which Europeans have integrated the least over the past twenty-five years, despite loud-sounding commitments, so the road ahead will not be easy and other issues may come in the way. Nonetheless, in many ways this is a nudge that Europeans ought to want.

The risk is that Trump’s foreign policy priorities, other than nudging Europeans to get their act together on defense spending, will drive wedges in Europe’s precarious unity and willingness to move toward the “strategic autonomy” objective stated in the new EU Global Strategy.

Brexit is the first danger zone. Trump has announced his willingness to negotiate a bilateral deal with Britain. This would be an exciting prospect for London, whose “hard Brexit” choice lacks a clear direction, but would be seen in Brussels as undermining its leverage in shaping the future EU–U.K. relationship. It could also trigger temptations in some quarters that a bilateral relationship with the United States gives more dividends than European integration. Some of these quarters may come to power in 2017.

Europeans should make a concerted effort to demand an even-handed U.S. policy toward the continent; the incoming administration ought to treat individual European states with equanimity to prevent vicious circles of competition among them from taking hold. While the United States will legitimately cultivate its relations with individual European countries, it needs to make clear that it sees Europe as strong if united.

Russia is the next red alert area. Trump has said enough about Russia to suggest discontinuity compared to the Obama administration. Europeans are in a difficult place: the first battleground of U.S.–Russian tensions is in Europe — Ukraine; the second, Syria, causes the influx of refugees that Europe has so struggled to deal with. European states will need to make sure that Washington and Moscow do not strike deals with each other over their heads, Europe’s geographical centrality means that it would bare the consequences of that deal. Who in Europe may be able to deliver that message to the new administration is not evident.

Brexit, Russia, and Syria are major dossiers in which U.S. dislocation may unravel the EU and cause the destabilisation of Europe. Other policy areas could lead to transatlantic divergence. Paradoxically, the likely death of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), on which so much energy has been invested, is the least preoccupying since it has been causing domestic tension in many EU states as well. Action on climate change is likely to come to a grinding halt; the Iran deal may be revised. These too will call Europeans to action. The challenge for Europe is daunting; if this is not a wake-up call, what is?

Rosa Balfour is Acting Director, Europe Program in the Brussels office of the German Marshal Fund (GMF). This article was first published by the GMF. More information can be found at 

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