The United States and the European Union have long been allies, sustaining a singular relationship, with ups as well as downs. The election of Trump could be in the latter category, as Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, director of the ECFR Paris office, underlines.
If we go by Trump’s campaign, the relationship between Donald Trump and Europe is likely to be fragile, not only on account of fundamental disagreements but also due to the animosity of the future president, who compared his victory to a “Brexit times ten.”
That being said, uncertainty surrounds the future Trump administration and the outlines of his politics. In this context, and in order to look into the future of the transatlantic relationship, let’s start from the point where Obama will leave it. Despite his broad appeal in Europe, Obama has proven to have a tendency to eliminate the United States’ strategic interest in Europe. It is only due to an accumulation of difficulties — Greece, Ukraine, Brexit, the refugee crisis, terrorism — that the continent has once again become a priority, at the end of his second mandate.
Obama, Where Europeans Expected Him
The transatlantic relationship has been marked by a mutual deception. For Obama, Europe behaves like a stowaway traveler, taking advantage of American leadership and of America’s contribution to international security. We can, however, recall an American contribution to international insecurity in Iraq, for which the Middle East and Europe are still paying the price. Above all, it is the Obama administration that has theorized (regarding Libya) their “leadership from behind” as an awkward dressing of their withdrawal from the Middle East. And as for the sanctions against Iran yesterday, it is Europe that today assumes most of the costs of the sanctions against Russia.
But despite that which has gone before, the two sides of the Atlantic have nurtured a close cooperation during these last few years, whether that be on the Iranian nuclear issue, climate change or the fight against the Islamic State. And on subjects like Cuba, Guantanamo or torture, Obama has always found himself on the side where the Europeans expected him.
What Europe could have expected from a new administration was therefore quite simple. Of course, the expectations of Europeans varied depending on their points of view. London expected support during Brexit negotiations — as did Dublin, incidentally. Greece was thinking about the economy, and so on. But generally speaking, before the election, the expectations of European governments had first of all to do with security. The degree of concern in relation to the guarantees of American security was striking, even before the election, not only in Europe but also in the Middle East and Asia. Besides, an American leadership based on a different, more inclusive method, like finding the balance between unilateralism and leadership from behind, would also have been welcome.
Trump Administration Does Not Appreciate the European Union
From this point forward, it is time for a re-evaluation. Those who allude to continuity have more reasons to hope for it (or to fear it) than to foresee it. Beyond the unpredictability [represented] by the candidate, which will be more destabilizing for international relations than for the real estate trade, two concerns can be identified. On the one hand, Trump gave a stated preference for finding common ground with countries that play power politics rather than with traditional allies. On the other hand, there’s the concern regarding his reticence to subscribe to international engagements, which he perceives as constraints. Agreements such as those on the Iranian nuclear program or the climate are fragile, and it is sufficient for the United States to fail to comply with their terms to threaten their [success].
Foreign policy of the Trump administration could therefore pose problems for Europe, because its directors hardly appreciate the European Union as such, and because the method favored by the EU on the international stage — cooperation based on rules — is, without a doubt, the antithesis of what the United States will favor. Also, the majority of Trump’s campaign stances bode poorly in the transatlantic consensus.
Patience and Perseverance
Facing this challenge, Europe must strengthen its position. It must reinforce its unity, and if there is a bilateral relationship that Europeans worry about diluting in a collective approach, it is the one they have with the United States. It must also try hard to increase its defense budgets or recover a certain economic vitality. It must, finally, be ready to act on the international stage to defend its interests.
Europe must also show itself to be patient and consistent. The first Trump will not be the last, as is true for the majority of international leaders. And Europe itself will hold several elections in the months to come, from which its interlocutors (the United States, but also Russia and others) can hope to benefit. Europe must therefore build a relationship with its new interlocutor. But it must also prepare itself to protect certain international policies if the United States were to abandon them, like the solution of two states in the Middle East or the sanctions against Russia upon which the Minsk protocol depends.
Finally, for the United States as well as Europe, it will be important to have more than only a negative agenda, as is currently forecast. Washington no longer wants the free trade agreement — TTIP — and wishes to reduce its contribution to European defense. Europe wants to avoid the United States, calling into question the policies in place on Russia, Iran or the climate. In the current atmosphere, the most difficult thing could be finding common projects.