Here’s something the European mind can’t fully comprehend: “Come November 2024, Donald Trump may be headed back into the White House,” states POLITICO.
It’s a nightmare scenario for Europeans who bore the brunt of the former U.S. president’s antagonism during his four years in office and hoped to never have to think about him again.
Back in early 2016, when a slightly less grizzled POLITICO journalist was asked to do the rounds of European embassies and think tanks to ask about Trump getting elected, several officials haughtily explained that the question wasn’t worth answering because he had no chance.
Not so in 2023. Europeans are wide awake to the possibility of a Trump redux, and most of the officials POLITICO spoke to for this article called for the bloc to prepare.
“Europe must be ready to face any situation linked to the results of the U.S. elections,” former French President François Hollande told POLITICO in response to emailed questions.
“In a democracy, there is always the risk that the worst candidate can be elected,” he added. “The people decide. Trump has been president. He can become president again, even if today he faces a lot of legal trouble. What we need to prepare for is the United States distancing itself from European affairs and the possible unraveling of the transatlantic alliance.”
Several European diplomats struck the same note of stoic realism. “It’s increasingly on people’s minds. We need to plan for every eventuality and avoid the situation in 2016, where we were unprepared for both Brexit and Trump,” said a second European diplomat who was granted anonymity to discuss politics in another country.
Asked whether a second Trump presidency would be different from the first, the second diplomat said Europe should brace for the worst. “Who will sign up to work with him given his record on how he treats people and how he betrays them? How can he have a strong team? With everyone he pretty much parted ways. And everyone wrote books bashing him. Even the nut jobs wrote books.”
Adding to the unease is a sense that a reelected Trump may feel invincible. The former president has been impeached twice and faces several criminal indictments, including one for denying the results of the 2020 election. If none of this prevents him from taking office, several European officials argued, why should he feel any constraints on his behavior at all?
The prospect of Trump’s return is particularly vexing for Germany, a frequent target of his attacks. Having been caught completely unprepared for his election in 2016, German politicians are eager not to repeat the same mistake — hence Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s recent trip to Texas, where she met with Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Norbert Röttgen, the senior member of the German parliament, said: “To prepare for Trump’s return the German federal government should urgently collaborate with its European partners to develop an independent defense policy. Unfortunately, I see no signs of this initiative within the government.”
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a European lawmaker in Poland’s Law and Justice party, said his camp would welcome Trump’s reelection. “Our experience with Trump 1 was good,” he said. “Under Trump, we got progress on the physical presence of American troops in Poland, as well as the base which we have baptized Fort Trump.”
Meanwhile, several European officials underscored efforts already undertaken by EU governments to bolster the Continent’s strategic independence.
They argued that European powers have not only coordinated massive weapons deliveries to Ukraine, surpassing the U.S. in the total value of support delivered; European countries have also significantly ramped up production of ammunition on the Continent in an effort coordinated by France’s Thierry Breton, who’s the European commissioner in charge of industrial policy.
“The Europeans have already done a lot, more than most people could have imagined,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia. “Just look at the amount of European weaponry on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
But there’s a big difference between spending marginally more on defense and seriously preparing for what Trump could reap in Europe — not least if he tries to follow through with his promise to strike a deal with Putin to end the war in Ukraine.
Such a move would not only pull the rug out from under the Ukrainians, who might feel huge pressure to give up part of their territory, but also be humiliating for the European powers that have cast their lot in with Kyiv.
In such circumstances, it would be “difficult to imagine” Europeans staying united on Ukraine,” said François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Security Studies. “They could try to help Ukraine, but all of a sudden they would be against the United States because it’s a deal negotiated by Trump. It’s a very black scenario.”
In 2018, Trump raised the possibility of pulling Washington out of NATO and letting the Europeans fend for themselves.
The upshot is that a reelected Trump could do anything, including pulling out of NATO. That’s a terrifying prospect for Europeans who have relied on a U.S. security guarantee for the past 78 years — so much so that few diplomats and officials are willing to theorize about what it could mean for Europe’s future.
Security analysts who are willing to go there paint an alarming picture: Suddenly deprived of U.S. strategic leadership, European countries would face huge, daunting questions about how to reorganize the security alliance. Who would be in charge? Would NATO continue to exist? Would European countries make sacrifices to their social welfare model to accommodate much higher defense spending?
Then there is the question of leadership: Who would be in charge of a European security alliance? Paris? Berlin? Warsaw? A rotating selection of European capitals? And where would Europe’s military leadership be housed, given what Rasmus Hindren, a Finnish security expert, called a “lack of strategic culture” in the EU’s executive branch? A solution is difficult to imagine, he said, given hostility between European powers and the fact that some countries, like Poland, trust Washington more than they do Brussels.
In the event of a Trump-ocalypse in transatlantic relations, Speck sees an effective split emerging in Europe’s security architecture. Eastern European countries that share a border with Russia and others that feel immediately concerned by Moscow’s ambitions, such as the Nordics plus Turkey and Romania, would have a natural inclination to band together in a de facto security alliance. “You have the makings here of a kind of coalition to block Russia’s advance,” he said.
Such a group would add pressure on others in Europe to form their own blocs, pushing the Continent’s countries further apart. Put differently, one possibility for a post-U.S. security order in Europe could look a lot like what existed before World War I: a series of interlocking alliances at risk of tumbling into war with each other.
Scenarios like that remain, for now, distant possibilities, but it’s a sign of the times that they are no longer unthinkable. For Europe’s leaders, Trump’s potential return is turning out to be a waking nightmare: They see it approaching but can’t seem to do anything about it, concludes POLITICO.