Trump will divide Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

US President Donald Trump promised to rebuild the infrastructure to become "second to none". [Shutterstock]

European leaders want to strengthen defence cooperation to prepare for the rest of Trump’s presidency and a weakened NATO. However, the new president will most likely divide Europe, not bring it together, warns Jonas J. Driedger.

Jonas J. Driedger is a research associate and PhD candidate at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

French diplomat Jean Monnet, one of Europe’s founding fathers, would have seen the rise of Trump as a great opportunity for Europe. After all, Monnet wrote in his memoirs that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”.

Today, Europe faces crises galore: terrorist attacks, Brexit, the resurgence of Russia, wars in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, incoming refugees and an ongoing victory march of anti-European populists.

On top of all of this comes newly inaugurated US President Donald J. Trump, a known Putin sympathiser and NATO critic.

If Monnet was right, the time is ripe for strengthening European security cooperation and start building a European army. Europe’s leaders seem to heed this advice.

Just a day after Trump won the election, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker forcefully called for a European army. Right after his announcement, Germany publicly backed him and announced heavy increases of its defence budget.

On 30 November, Juncker also released a plan for raising defence spending all across Europe. He bluntly stated Europe was in need of “strategic autonomy”.

On 13 January 2017, one week before Trump’s inauguration, German chancellor Angela Merkel explicitly referred to the deteriorating state of transatlantic relations and urged the EU to take care of its own security.

According to integration optimists, European unity is also aided by Brexit. The United Kingdom had long put the brakes on European defence integration. Right after Brexit, the defence ministers of Germany and France, the traditional powerhouses of European integration, announced the creation of a European “defence union” and a “Schengen of defence”.

Yet despite all of these bold political announcements, the optimists are wrong. A Trump presidency indeed represents a crisis for Europe, but it will not lead to unity. Rather, Trump will sharpen divisions across the continent.

Trump’s rise gave a massive boost to anti-immigrant (and anti-European) populists. France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland have already caused a strong shift to the isolationist right in both countries.

France and Germany will hold parliamentary elections and designate their future leaders in 2017. After Brexit and Trump, a populist landslide with major geopolitical implications cannot be ruled out.

But Trump’s ascendancy will not just divide domestic politics in Europe. It will also create conflict over how to deal with international challenges.

Despite its pre-war mistakes, Europe showed surprising unity and resolve when it slapped sanctions on Russia following Putin’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. It also supported an increase of NATO troops in the eastern member states. However, support for confronting Russia is fragile.

France, Italy and Spain increasingly bemoan costs in times of economic hardship, whilst quietly noting that they themselves are not threatened by the Kremlin. In the East, the former client states of the Soviet Empire are understandably fearful and hawkish towards a newly aggressive Russia.

Germany, caught in the middle position, has been a champion of sanctions, but waveringly so. Indeed, the Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner and still the most serious challenge to her reign, take a much softer line on Russia.

Russia has made clear it will not change its mind on Ukraine. In its recently published National Security Strategy, Russia’s elites ominously stress the threat of nuclear war and continue to paint a picture of a world divided into civilisation spheres.

They reject what they regard as western interference into areas where Russians live, where Russian is spoken and where Orthodox Christianity is practiced. These areas are notably not confined to Russia’s borders.

So far, European divisions on sanctions could be managed because the United States had showed a firm commitment to organise and reinforce pressure on Russia. Chances are that we will see a radical change under Trump.

This will make it much harder for any Western European leader to uphold a confrontational stance towards Putin. However, the opposite applies for Eastern Europe, where wavering US support will increase fears and empower hawks. With Trump, Europe is set to split further on Russia.

Or consider Iran. Unbeknownst to many in the Washington beltway, Europe played a crucial role in imposing effective sanctions on Iran and facilitating the recent nuclear deal.

Europe has hard interests in the deal, as Iran presents may untapped business opportunities and Iranian missiles can already reach Europe.

Under Trump, US-Iranian policy will likely undergo a radical shift back towards confrontation, as evinced by Trump’s choices of cabinet members and his characterization of the Iran deal as a “disgrace”.

If the United States goes unilateral on Iran, we will likely see a clash within Europe resembling the fall-out surrounding the Iraq War in 2003. Whilst some countries joined the US to enjoy the rewards of superpower patronage, others stood against it to counterbalance a dangerous overreach and protect their own interests.

Finally, consider Germany.

So far, the US has dominated and coordinated Europe’s defence policies. It was able to do so because of its immense military power and the fact that, in Europe, it pursued global and general goals, like promoting and extending economic liberalism, stability and democracy. This advanced American as well as European interests.

But if Trump withdraws from Europe, the German problem arises.

Because Germany is so powerful, it has to play the leading role in any meaningful effort to increase European security cooperation and build a European army. But if Germany actually takes on such a role, its power will cause fear and resentment.

Germany’s interests are regional and specific. Hence, they would often be in direct conflict with the agendas of other European states. Germany would always be accused of either dominating or deserting its European siblings. And the German public would always be divided over whether other Europeans free ride on Germany or ignore its legitimate interests (and might be in need of some nudging).

Such tensions between Germany and smaller European states already exist in different policy fields. Berlin took the lead in dealing with the sovereign debt crisis and imposed painful financial discipline. The resulting dismay was compounded by Germany’s unilateral approach to the refugee crisis. An American withdrawal would bring the German problem into the vital realm of national security.

None of this is to say that Trump’s presidency will spells certain doom for Europe. It might even do some good. A well-managed thaw between the United States and Russia could help to stabilise Syria and reduce the inflow of refugees.

And if Trump recklessly confronts China, new business opportunities might present themselves for Europe. But those who think that the Trump will bring Europe closer together are most likely wrong.

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