In 2017, German chancellor Angela Merkel issued a warning from a Munich beer hall.
“The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” she told the crowd. “That’s what I experienced over the past several days.”
Merkel had just returned from Italy where she and other leaders of the world’s economic powers had gathered for the annual G7 Summit, the first since the UK voted to leave the European Union and the US voted to elect Donald Trump, a notorious Eurosceptic. In a sign of just how bad things had gotten at the time, G7 leaders were just glad the US president showed up.
At the end of the meeting, Trump declined to endorse the traditional joint communiqué outlining G7 countries’ priorities for the future. Notably, he refused to commit to implementing the Paris Agreement on climate change; two days later, he started the process of withdrawing the US from that agreement. In the four years since, Trump has attacked NATO, called the EU America’s “foe,” withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed trade tariffs on European steel and aluminum.
As a result, transatlantic relations are at a low point. A recent Pew survey found that only a third of respondents across nine European countries have a favorable view of the US right now.
Knowing all this, EU leaders could perhaps be forgiven for wanting to wipe the slate clean. And they could get their chance in about a month, if Joe Biden wins the election. But after the dust settles, they might find it useful to look at the ways in which Donald Trump’s presidency has changed Europe for the better.
An opening for pan-Europeans
It’s no secret that the EU had been teetering on the edge of collapse for years, weakened by the euro zone debt crisis, the migrant crisis, and internal disagreements over economic and political integration. Populism was on the rise, and the Brexit referendum, which Trump enthusiastically supported, was a culmination of this.
Yet these developments—capped by Trump’s disruptive arrival on the world stage—also served as a catalyst for those who believe that “in order to save Europe we need more of it,” says Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a US think tank.
Trump’s presidency emboldened a certain segment of European technocrats, sometimes known as pan-Europeans, who favor expanding the union. Their flag-bearer, French president Emmanuel Macron, laid out his vision for the future of the EU in an ambitious speech at the Sorbonne in 2017. The EU needs to expand and reform, he argued, in part because the conditions that allowed it to thrive after World War II are no longer present—meaning, America is no longer with us:
“We were not sufficiently aware that this much-desired Europe grew up sheltered. Security was not its business: this was performed by America. Its economy already knew the path to follow: catch up with America. Sheltered from the people, too. But the barriers behind which Europe could blossom have disappeared. So, today, it finds itself weaker, exposed to the squalls of today’s globalization and, surely even worse, the ideas which offer themselves up as preferable solutions.”
For a long time, there was active opposition among the so-called “frugal” countries of Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands to the idea of further integrating Europe. But Trump’s presidency was “wind in the sails of the Paris-based point of view that the EU should be a world power” and a major player in the global competition between China and the US, says Rough.
The coronavirus did the rest, by handing the camp a golden opportunity to launch a €750 billion ($875 billion) “recovery fund,” the EU’s joint-response instrument to the looming recession. The fund allows the European Commission to borrow from capital markets on the EU’s behalf and distribute the money raised to member states in the form of grants and loans.
Trump’s presidency arguably laid the groundwork for this moment: After four years of being told it couldn’t rely on the US, the EU finally took matters into its own hands.
It’s the rhetoric, stupid
James Carafano, a foreign and defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, argues that president Trump “has actually done many positive and constructive things for the transatlantic relationship,” but that “people fixate on the rhetoric and they ignore the deliverables on the ground.”
For example, Trump has supported the Three Seas Initiative, which aims to coordinate and help fund infrastructure, digital, and energy projects in the countries that border the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas in order to counter Russian and Chinese influence. Earlier this year, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo pledged up to $1 billion in future financing for the initiative—pending congressional approval—via the International Development Finance Corporation.
In fact, Trump has taken an unusual interest in this region. He convinced Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Latvia to strengthen their cooperation with Washington on 5G and brokered a deal—albeit a contentious one—between Serbia and Kosovo, two potential future members of the EU.
By effectively launching a new Cold War with China, Trump has also forced the EU to lay out its own strategy vis-à-vis Beijing in order to avoid getting caught in the middle. Relations with China have taken a front seat in the EU’s diplomacy since the bloc labeled Beijing a “systemic rival” (pdf, p. 1) in 2019. EU leaders are now in the final phases of negotiating a joint investment agreement that they hope will “level the playing field” between EU and Chinese companies. Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe initiative, argues this wouldn’t have happened without Trump, who “put China at the center of the agenda in a way that previous administrations haven’t done.”
But perhaps the most important thing Trump has done for Europe is made them “internalize the fact that they have to to start looking after themselves,” says Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Towards a more perfect union
There’s work to be done and Carafano argues that the EU has “used Trump as an excuse not to address serious fundamental issues.”
For example, the Commission’s pleas to member states to move from unanimous decision-making to qualified majority voting have fallen on deaf ears. This means that in a crisis that requires that Europe act quickly and with one voice, it can be held hostage by just one member state, as happened recently when Cyprus vetoed planned sanctions on the regime of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. (At a special summit last week Cyprus withdrew its veto in exchange for support from Brussels in Nicosia’s standoff with Ankara, and the EU said it would move forward with sanctions against Belarusian officials.)
And while France and Germany have made grandiose pronouncements about bolstering the EU’s defense capabilities, spending commitments for defense in the bloc’s next seven-year budget have actually been reduced.
Still, those who follow the EU closely notice a new conviction in its language. And it’s easier to paper over the little things—like defense budgets and reforming the EU’s bureaucracy—when you’re fighting on the same side for the big things, like saving the Paris climate accord from a US president determined to cripple it.
The transatlantic divide didn’t start with Trump
The US rebuilt Europe after World War II and has served as the bedrock of European defense since then, notably by disproportionately funding NATO and stationing thousands of troops across the continent.
Trump’s main grievance against Europeans—that they’re freeloaders riding America’s coattails—isn’t new. Both Barack Obama and George Bush wanted Europe to spend more on defense. The difference was that previous presidents emphasized the importance of NATO while Trump would reportedly be happy to leave it altogether.
Trump was heavily criticized in July for withdrawing US troops from Germany. But Obama did the same thing in 2013. In fact, Obama was clear when he was elected that his foreign policy focus would be Asia, not Europe. At the end of his second term, in a wide-ranging interview with The Atlantic, Obama was harshly critical of Europeans’ actions in the Middle East and lack of defense spending, proclaiming “free riders aggravate me.”
Americans and Europeans don’t just argue over defense; they have different conceptions of the role of government in the digital space and that divide has only grown as Big Tech companies have taken on a larger role in the public domain. Obama criticized the EU for what he saw as commercial protectionism (paywall) but in the end, he presided over the passing of a landmark joint data sharing agreement with the EU and Switzerland called the “Privacy Shield.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration has attacked the EU’s landmark data privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as “overly restrictive.” (The European Court of Justice ruled in July that the Privacy Shield doesn’t adequately protect the data of EU consumers from US government surveillance.)
“We’ve seen a widening divide in the transatlantic relationship,” says Haddad, “but it’s a divide that predated Trump in many respects.”
It’s also likely to outlast him. If Biden wins in November, the transatlantic relationship will likely improve. Biden is avowedly pro-NATO and his campaign has made clear that, if elected, he would review Trump’s troop pullout from Germany. But it won’t go back to how it was before, says Haddad, who believes that a Biden administration would prioritize domestic issues like race relations and the coronavirus over foreign policy issues in Europe.
Besides, he argues, “I don’t think the US election should determine how Europeans think of themselves.”