America First: Will Trump’s Agenda Provide an Opportunity for Europe?

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Though it seems counter-intuitive at first sight, Trumps election could lead to a deeper unification in the European Union – especially with new concepts  in the security and defence sector, writes Alois Maderspacher

During his 17 month election campaign, Donald Trump’s key message was that he would make America ‘great again’. Yet, when the new President-elect thinks of ‘greatness’ he thinks along merely isolationist economic and military lines and in populist-nationalist terms, but not in terms of international trade, of playing a pioneering role in combating climate change. Nor does he want to maintain a state of international security guaranteed by the United States alone. Trump might be capable to lead America into an age of isolation just as it was the case before 1917, the year when America trod onto the world stage by entering the First World War.

However, Trump’s announcements to reconsider America’s role in the world and its mighty security umbrella cast over her friends and allies should galvanize European leaders  to foster the process of European unification. And some of them already soliloquize about it. It just has to become a chorus. America’s new ‘greatness’ can be Europe’s great opportunity. In this current period of transition from the Obama Administration to the new Trump Administration in January 2017 and even the months after that, we will experience a lot of uncertainties for nobody has the magic crystal ball to forecast the future. Trump, however, has given some hints at his foreign policy.

Trump has talked about renegotiating trade agreements such as NAFTA, the nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership, and possibly the WTO even. In terms of security policy Trump has accused America’s friends and allies of freeriding under the US security umbrella. “Our resources are totally overextended,” he made clear in a speech in April 2016 and continued: “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defence, and if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves. We have no choice.” Indeed, most of the 28 NATO members fail to reach the target of spending two percent of their GDP on defence – France and Germany among them. In the end, even the United States, still the largest economic and military power in the world, may not be strong enough to withdraw unilaterally from a globalised, ever more integrated world. Yet the sheer prospect of it makes the world and Europe shiver.

Here lies the chance for Europe to unite further. At first sight, this may seem daunting given the fact that populist nationalism is also on the rise this side of the Atlantic. There is President Viktor Orbàn in Hungary; Marine Le Pen might possibly become France’s next head of state and so might right-winger Norbert Hofer in Austria. The Netherlands witness the rise of populist Geert Wilders and Germany has a new populist nationalist party, the AfD, scoring high in regional elections and it is likely to gain seats in the Bundestag after the next federal election as well. Lastly, after a populist campaign lead by UKIP, Britain has just voted to leave the EU altogether. No doubt, there are great hurdles to overcome in Europe. But (Western) Europe’s decades-old, established democracies will be strong enough to withhold the storm. History does not repeat itself, and 2016 is not the 1930s. Now there is a new challenge from the outside. “Trump’s election marks the end of the post-war world,” says John Kornblum former US ambassador to Germany.

“The American umbrella over Europe is withdrawn for ever.” An institution to which Europe has become conveniently accustomed. If the US really reconsider their commitment to Europe and NATO the EU faces the task to revise their foreign and security policy stem to stern. The EU member states themselves will have to speak with one strong voice if the US will not do it for them any longer and they will have to take care of their own security and spend more on defence. Given the international situation and what is happening in the EU’s own back garden with Russia threatening peace in Eastern Europe. There is now the possibility, that with these uncertainties and challenges from the outside, the EU will finally have to grow up if it wants to play a major role in a multipolar world between China, Russia and of course the US.

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, already suggests the establishment of a European army, a project that was once on the agenda but was rejected in the 1950s. Not exactly in favour of a common army but clearly stating the need for more co-operation, German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen calls for a defence union. Members from the European Parliament – left and right – blow into the same trumpet. It is too early to be a coherent concert, though. Yet, it may be exactly this uncertainty caused by a possible American reduction of international commitment that can help to promote European unification. The outcome of the US-Elections may have come as shock to the EU, but in the end it might be blessing in disguise and foster a more perfect union.



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