How Europe can start Trump-proofing

January 11, 2024
Europeans can’t determine the outcome of the US elections, but they can begin to prepare for the worst.

This article was originally published in POLITICO Europe on January 11, 2024.

A majority of Europeans currently believe that a second term with former United States President Donald Trump in the White House would weaken the Continent’s security alliance with the U.S. — and they are right.

But while Europeans may not be able to determine the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, they can begin to build firewalls and take other measures — measures on military preparedness, the European Union’s decision-making processes, institutionalizing ties between transatlantic stakeholders, and guarding against a potential drift away from the U.S. — to safeguard their relationship.

Europe has agency in transatlantic relations, and in the year ahead, it needs to be the adult in the room. Trump-proofing U.S.–EU relations must be a high priority for 2024.  

Issue number one is, of course, Ukraine, which is currently in desperate need of support. This is partly due to the EU’s failure — thanks to Hungary’s obstructionism — to agree on a €50 billion five-year financial aid package in mid-December. And this was then compounded by the U.S. Congress’ inability to approve $61 billion in American support for Kyiv.  

Furthermore, it is unclear when Congress may act in 2024. And as a presidential candidate, Trump has been inchoate about his plans for assisting Ukraine, promising to both cut off said aid and “give them more than they have ever got.” 

Faced with an unpredictable Washington and its own shortcomings, Brussels is now looking to fund Ukrainian assistance from outside the EU budget, either through national contributions or debt guarantees from member countries. But this piecemeal approach is destined to come up months late and euros short.  

Therefore, if the bloc is to succeed in helping Ukraine and safeguarding against U.S. unreliability in the future, it should embrace Washington’s new proposal to seize Russian assets. 

The impasse over Ukraine funding due to Hungary’s veto also highlights a troubling structural flaw in EU decision-making — and one that is destined to hobble Europe’s Trump-proofing. 

Without qualified majority voting in major decisions, Brussels’ ability to establish its “strategic autonomy” will be held hostage by Trump’s allies in Budapest and elsewhere. Thus, the prospect of a Trump return gives easier decision-making an added urgency. In other words, more decisions in the EU need to be taken by qualified majority voting, and there need to be more options for “coalitions of the willing” to work together on important issues. 

In the meantime, Europe’s much vaunted commitment to increase defense spending — prompted by Trump’s threats while in office — leaves much to be desired as well. Most NATO countries are still spending less than 2 percent of GDP on defense. And 20 out of the 28 European NATO members currently spend more on personnel than on major equipment, maintenance, research and development, operations, and infrastructure.

As the current difficulties in meeting Ukrainian equipment needs painfully demonstrate, European militaries lack sufficient ammunition resupply, tanks and aircraft to contain Russia on their own — and they need to prepare. 

America’s eventual pivot back to Asia is inevitable, and a Trump presidency would mean the Pentagon would no longer continue to backstop Europe. So, while non-U.S. NATO spending already increased 8.3 percent in 2023, European countries need to commit to continue increasing at the same pace at July’s NATO summit in Washington and, more importantly, refocus on greater self-sufficiency when it comes to military equipment.  

Going forward, the transatlantic relationship also needs to be better institutionalized, and on this front, the EU should push U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to agree to a 21st century transatlantic partnership, and to commit to achieving this goal by 2030, as advocated by the Transatlantic Policy Network. 

Such a partnership will, of course, require broad political support. And as both the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress are preoccupied with upcoming elections, Brussels and Washington should start by reconstituting the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and other related stakeholder dialogues. Taking such steps will make it politically harder for a future American administration to unravel transatlantic ties. 

Finally, safeguarding transatlantic relations for 2025 and beyond isn’t just about Trump-proofing. The rightward shift in European politics poses a threat to the alliance too.  

In the past, Marine Le Pen — the likely right-wing candidate for the 2027 French presidency — has threatened to pull France out of NATO’s military command, and she has opposed supplying Ukraine with weapons. Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who may hold the balance in a new coalition government, has argued that the Netherlands should cut its military support to Ukraine. And anti-NATO candidates from Germany’s Alternative for Germany party figure prominently among the candidates for the 2024 European elections.

No matter what happens in the upcoming U.S. elections, if EU support for NATO, Ukraine and other shared transatlantic challenges withers, the glue holding the U.S. and Europe together will start to come undone.  

There’s no sugarcoating it — a second Trump administration would spell major trouble for transatlantic relations. And while Europeans are, indeed, powerless to affect the outcome of the 2024 U.S. elections, they do have a year to prepare for the worst. 

If they fail to act, they only have themselves to blame.