A Year of Trump: Challenges and Opportunities for Europe

When we woke up on the early morning of November 9th, 2016, as Europeans we experienced the second electoral shock of 2016. After Brexit in June, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States of America. The European project seemed to be further weakened: for the first time in history a country decided to leave, reversing the European integration process and the USA, the main sponsor of this process in Europe, appeared to not anymore be committed towards it, if not openly adverse. Many things have happened in one year since then, we are constantly watching with concern an escalation of conflicts, mainly with North Korea, and the very personal exchange of childish insults between the two leaders. The latest incident involves the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un calling Trump old, which caused an immediate reaction from President Trump via twitter: “Why would Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’?”. This article aims to focus on the EU’s perspective and briefly analyze some of the effects Trump’s election has had on the European Union and transatlantic relations.

When coming to EU-US relations, what first pops into one’s mind is NATO, the concrete expression of the transatlantic relations in regards to defense and security. The North Atlantic alliance is the world’s biggest military alliance, owning 70% of the world’s weapons and military equipment. Its structure is the hard guarantee for security in Europe, there are no comparable structures and there will be not be anything similar in the foreseeable future. To build a structure like that, in fact, requires high political commitment, a huge amount of money, and time. What happened this past year is that the relationship has changed for the first time in 70 years. After the meeting in May, 2017, Trump didn’t express his commitment to Article 5 – collective defense – while lambasting other NATO members for not spending enough money on their militaries. This led the German Chancellor Angela Merkel to declare that it cannot rely on the United States. In fact, Article 5 is directly linked to political commitment and trust between the involved parties.

But if this is a negative aspect on the very short term, it could have a positive spillover effect in the generation of a sense of awakening. Europe must enter adulthood and walk on its own feet, also regarding its defense policy. Last year has seen acceleration in the rate of collaboration between the Member States on a Common Security and Defense Policy. A new strategy was launched in June 2016 with the “European Defence Action Plan”, and for the first time some aspects related to security policy became legally binding for the Member States. On June the 7th, 2017, President Juncker officially launched a European Defense Fund of EUR 5.5 billion per year to boost Europe’s defense capability. The fund aims to avoid the duplication of expenses and to strengthen collaboration between the Member States, especially regarding on equipment and logistical aspects. 23 EU Member States have just signed a joint notification launching the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a treaty-based framework and process to deepen defense cooperation amongst EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so. It will enable Member States to jointly develop defense capabilities, invest in shared projects and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of their armed forces.

It is important to underline that Trump’s election is not the only reason for this, but, together with other elements, it worked as an accelerator for certain long-term policies. At the same time, it is not possible to imagine a complete reversal in the relationship between the EU and the USA, but instead an evolution towards a more equal partnership, also on the topic of defense.

This sense of awakening generated on the matter of the defense policy provoked also awareness in other matters. The Trump Presidency has taken, in fact, a position against the Paris Agreement on climate change, the peace agreement on nuclear energy with Iran and has made steps against multilateralism, preferring bilateral negotiations in foreign policy. Europe in this sense does not have a partner in the USA on these subjects now and must stand on its own and fight to defend core values, such as, multilateralism and free trade, commitment to the international community, and for environmental preservation.

One last point we want to mention is the legitimation given by the Trump election to the rise of populist right-wing movements all over Europe. The threat of these movements to democracy is a long-term phenomenon which has its origin in social problems and threats mainly posed by globalization. The Trump election sounds a warning alert; the Western model of Democracy is facing challenges and need new tools, and possibly a new model to face contemporary issues. In a hyper connected world, where multinational corporations and cities have larger GDPs than States, it is necessary to find a good democratic governance system capable of managing these challenges. This system needs to keep as a core element the integrity and full freedom of the individual, otherwise other models based on authoritarianism and illiberalism, such as in China, Russia, or Turkey, could become the alternative that is turned to.