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Europe tries to Trump-proof itself as Putin’s war in Ukraine looms over NATO

Europe tries to Trump-proof itself as Putin’s war in Ukraine looms over NATO

LONDON — November’s presidential election may be nine months away, but Europe is already trying to Trump-proof itself, officials on the continent have told NBC News, fearing what a second term for the Republican might mean for America’s closest allies.

During his first four years, former President Donald Trump shocked the Europeans by upending the transatlantic balance on which the postwar Western world was built. Their main concern is that a reelected Trump would double down — halting aid to Ukraine and reneging on Washington’s promise to defend its NATO partners — to leave them more vulnerable to attack by Russia.

“If Trump were reelected, we would face a situation in Europe that has not occurred since the end of the Second World War,” said Norbert Röttgen, a veteran German lawmaker and ex-chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “Europe would have to stand up for its own security in an unprecedented way.”

The paradox is that many of these critics, while reviling Trump’s tactics, rhetoric and motives, actually agree with his central point: Europe has for too long depended on the United States’ military might and geopolitical influence. The prospect of Trump back in the White House has only lent new urgency to those driving this effort, particularly in light of recent indications that he might be happy to leave Russian President Vladimir Putin free reign to act aggressively at home and abroad.

Europe is far from united, however, with an expected far-right surge in June elections led by nationalist parties that share Trump’s Ukraine skepticism. On the other side of the aisle, those who want to bolster Europe’s defenses know it would be a costly, complex and lengthy process — hence the fierce debate currently raging over how to do so.

“Nothing should be off the table to enhance Europe’s sovereignty in the face of a possible second Trump term,” said Valérie Hayer, a senior European Parliament lawmaker from France.

“Europe has relied on the U.S. to provide its security for too long,” said Hayer, who leads the Renew Europe group, and is French President Emmanuel Macron’s top lawmaker in Brussels. “It’s high time for Europe to improve its own deterrence capacities and take its security into its own hands.”

Many here believe that Trump would be economically protectionist and perhaps even launch new trade wars against Europe. But by far their main concern is about defense — namely against Russia.

Europe’s economy dwarfs that of Moscow’s, but since the Cold War it has relied on the U.S. for defense against the Kremlin. Its two nuclear powers, the United Kingdom and France, have relatively small and untested arsenals, illustrated by the revelation this week that Britain recently had a failed nuclear submarine test launch. Europe’s conventional forces, meanwhile, would provide scant protection in a full-scale land war without American backing.

Washington’s NATO allies have in recent years increased defense spending, spurred by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But Trump’s blunt ultimatum to NATO — pay more or we would not protect you — has convinced many across the continent that they need to accelerate and coordinate the production and supply of weapons.

Jason Miller, a senior advisor to Trump, criticized Biden’s record in Europe, and said the president had presided over “death and destruction” on the continent.

“President Trump got our allies to increase their NATO spending by demanding they pay up, but Joe Biden went back to letting them take advantage of the American taxpayer,” he said in a written statement. “When you don’t pay your defense spending, you can’t be surprised that you get more war.”

Trump NATO Summit
Then-President Donald Trump shaking hands with secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO summit in London on Dec. 4, 2019. Christian Hartmann / Pool via AFP – Getty Images file

The former president may have focused minds, but he is not the sole cause of the reckoning European leaders are undergoing.

Many in Europe recognize that, even if President Joe Biden wins in November, the isolationist ideas that Trump popularized among some Republicans will not disappear. European leaders and officials are, in this sense, not so much insulating themselves against a potential Trump administration but against a new normal in transatlantic relations.

Leaders are also facing equivocating support among the European people themselves when it comes to support for Ukraine. More people now back a negotiated peace with Russia than they did last year, according to January polling of 17,000 people across 12 countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

The impending election “is a wake-up call” for Europe, said Dominic Grieve, a former senior British lawmaker who until 2019 chaired the country’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. But “whoever wins the next presidential election in the States, I think the writing’s on the wall for previous levels of U.S. interest in Europe,” said Grieve, a former lawmaker with the ruling Conservative Party.

This would mean a drastic reordering of the transatlantic relationship that has existed since the aftermath of World War II. Presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama have indeed urged Europe to increase military spending. But none have come close to Trump’s unvarnished quid pro quo on spending.

Ukraine’s military struggles against Russia have coincided with a softening of support for Kyiv across Europe, according to January polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, with more people now backing a negotiated peace with Russia.

Trump’s critics question whether he really wants to strengthen NATO, an alliance he’s criticized for decades, or is merely using the spending argument as an excuse to junk it. Either way, NATO’s European members say that the sentiment, regardless of motive, is reason enough to act.

“We will have to increase the effectiveness of our armies, we will have to reorganize and expand our industrial defense capacities, and this would not go overnight, it would take time,” Röttgen, the German lawmaker, who was a member of former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet.

Röttgen is among those who say not enough is being done. 

But the E.U. says it’s trying. Next month the bloc will release its European Defence Industrial Strategy, a grand plan for its 27 member states to cooperate on manufacturing and distributing weapons.

European President Ursula von der Leyen has sought to cast these attempted reforms as complementary to U.S. cooperation — rather than an insurance policy for its absence.

“Europe has to step up its industrial base,” she  told a panel at the Munich Security Conference. “I’m a convinced transatlanticist and at the same time we have to build a strong Europe and that goes hand in hand.”

These diplomatic noises notwithstanding, Trump’s potential second coming undoubtedly looms large. 

Already his Republican allies in Congress have stalled aid to Ukraine, leaving it newly vulnerable to Moscow’s war machine. Europe has tried to step up, but the results so far have not been promising. In January, the European Union admitted it only managed to fulfill half of its promise to send 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine.

Beyond Ukraine, both Danish and Estonian officials have this year raised the alarm about Russia’s ability and even intent to attack a NATO member within the next decade. Russia is expected to produce 3.5 million units of artillery ammunition this year, according to Estonian estimates. By contrast, Europe is expected to be able to produce around 1.4 million shells by the end of the year.

For these NATO members, then, Trump is undermining the alliance at the very moment they may have to call on its Article 5 all-for-one-and-one-for-all mutual defense clause.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spelled out Europe’s dependence on the alliance during an interview with NBC News at the Munich Security Conference.

Asked about the former president’s threat, Baerbock said NATO “is our life insurance” — not only for Europe but Washington, too. Without naming Trump directly, she added that “every person in the world, especially in liberal democracies, understands that this is the moment where you have to show where you’re standing for freedom for peace and security.”

She said NATO and the E.U. were “stronger than ever before.” But not everyone at Munich was so upbeat.

“We are already late,” Röttgen, the senior German lawmaker, said of Europe’s Trump-proofing plans. “But it’s better to start late than not at all,” he said, because “the consequences of Trump’s reelection would affect Europe in the most impactful and dangerous way.”

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