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JAmie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe.
As former United States President Donald Trump is embroiled in growing and potentially politically terminal legal troubles, some European leaders and politicians are breathing easier. . . but only a little.
For months now, on the sidelines of global summits and gatherings – including Davos, the Munich Security Conference and the Aspen Festival of Ideas – discussions have increasingly turned to examining what could mean a second Trump term for Europe and NATO, as well as its impact on Western support for Ukraine.
“That’s all everyone wants to talk about,” said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO who heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Everyone asks others what is going to happen. I hear people asking all the time what it will do to Ukraine if Trump returns to the White House.
Europe’s nightmare is still a Trump comeback, but it’s a bad dream pushed to the back of the mind. With the former president declaring his candidacy, and recent court appearances and indictments only fueling his popularity among his Republican base, however, many on the continent are now wondering, what’s the plan?
For most European leaders, Trump’s first term was traumatic to say the least, accompanied by threats to withdraw the United States from NATO; a refusal to forcefully reaffirm Article 5 of the NATO treaty, guaranteeing mutual assistance in the event of armed aggression; and divisions on a range of issues from trade and immigration to sanctions on Russia and climate change.
The low points followed one another quickly and relentlessly. In May 2017, months after he entered the White House, Europeans hoped a more moderate Trump would emerge, making strenuous efforts to appease and woo the man whom German newspaper Handelsblatt had dubbed the “big boss.” Surely he would temper his campaign remarks, including his description of Brussels as a “hell” due to what he claimed was a lack of “assimilation” of the Muslim population.
But those hopes were quickly dashed during Trump’s first presidential visit to Europe, speaking with a bang about resetting transatlantic relations that had been marred by his rocky election.
While Trump and his aides described the trip as a “success,” European leaders and officials complained the team ignored basic facts, including about transatlantic trade. “Every time we talked about a country, he remembered the things he had done,” an official told Le Soir Belge. “Scotland? He said he opened a (golf) club. Ireland? He said it took him two and a half years to get a license and it didn’t give him a very good image of the EU.
And that first taste of Trump made then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an avid transatlanticist, wonder where the Western alliance was headed. Speaking at a rally in Germany, she said: ‘The times when we can fully rely on each other are a bit over, as I have experienced in recent days. And while acknowledging that Germany and Europe should strive to maintain good relations with the United States and Britain, Merkel also said: “We have to know that we have to fight for our own future. as Europeans, for our destiny”.
His mood did not improve the following year, when at the G7 summit in Canada, Trump took two candies out of his pocket, threw them in front of the German Chancellor and said, “Here, Angela, don’t say that I never give you anything,” as French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel and others tried to persuade him to sign a statement on a rules-based international order.
So when Joe Biden – the most pro-Atlanticist president since George HW Bush – defeated Trump, there was absolute relief. “Relations will be less abrasive, and we won’t have to put up with a presidential commentary of all-caps tweets,” a senior German official told me.
Gone are the White House encouragements of continental Eurosceptic populists; also disappeared, the rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not that anyone expected everything to go well – the US and Europe had changed, and Biden looked like he could pursue an “America first” agenda, but not, as he has. underlined, an “America alone” program. However, the episodic questioning of the very value of the transatlantic defense pact to which Trump had pledged himself, along with the deadly encounters and blunt tweets aimed at European leaders, had now also disappeared.
However, after all that, some European politicians are now blaming their colleagues and national leaders for not having made contingency plans and given enough thought to how to deal with a second Trump term.
French lawmaker Benjamin Haddad, a member of Macron’s Renaissance party, said no one should assume Biden will be re-elected, or bank on Trump being found guilty of the indictments filed this week by US special counsel Jack. Smith – America’s most important 247-year-old. history.
“I think Europeans don’t take the likelihood of Trump’s re-election seriously enough,” Haddad told POLITICO. “The indictments, whether justified or not from a legal point of view, clearly reinforce this for the Republican primary. And he’s neck and neck with Biden in the general election polls. At this point, it looks like a 50-50 scenario. Europe’s security cannot rest on the whims of the American electorate,” he added.
Some planning in Europe has finally begun on how to safeguard the transatlantic security pact – as well as how to protect Ukraine from Trump. But not enough, according to a leading lobbyist in Washington who represents some European countries. He asked that his name be withheld in order to speak freely. “Are people preparing enough for the possibility of a Trump administration? The answer is no. I said we have to be prepared for that because he looks weak in many ways, but he is the presumptive candidate,” he said.
Notwithstanding the indictments Smith has filed, contingency planning needs to be started in earnest, the lobbyist stressed, saying worst-case scenario planning is always prudent. “Especially considering all the consequences we would likely see with a second Trump administration, which would be far worse than the first. Because the question is, who will enter the next Trump administration? At least you had really strong people for the first time. Who will go back there a second time? It is particularly frightening,” he added.
And as a lobbyist, he worked with a Republican congressman to start erecting legislative safeguards to try to prevent a President Trump from pulling out of NATO or cutting off aid to Ukraine.
But Daalder thinks such legislation, even if passed, can only do so much to shut Trump down. “Okay, you can make it so that you can’t withdraw from NATO without Senate approval. The problem with that is that you don’t have to withdraw from NATO. to destroy it,” he said. “And so, I really don’t think there’s a legislative fix for that. The only way to keep Trump from destroying NATO is if Trump becomes not president.
“Some of the Europeans I talk to say that if the worst happens they can resist a Trump presidency like they did the first time around,” Daalder added. “But I tell them they’re whistling in the graveyard.”