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HERE’S SOMETHING THE EUROPEAN MIND can’t fully comprehend: Come November 2024, Donald Trump may be headed back into the White House.
It’s a nightmare scenario for Europeans who bore the brunt of the former U.S. president’s antagonism during his four years in office and hoped to never have to think about him again.
The fact that his successor, Joe Biden, turned out to be one of the most Europe-friendly U.S. presidents in living memory helped to wash away the bad feelings of the Trump years, making it all feel like a bad dream. Did Trump really toy with the idea of pulling out of NATO? Maybe. Did he really call the European Union a “foe” and Brussels, the seat of the bloc’s institutions, a “hellhole”? Probably. What matters is that he’s gone.
But as Biden enters the final year of his first term, Europeans are being forced to face up to the fact that he may soon be out of power, and that Trump could once again be in charge. Over the weekend, an ABC survey showed Trump leading the incumbent president by nearly 10 percentage points. While that poll has been criticized as an outlier, Trump consistently polls higher than other Republican presidential hopefuls, suggesting he is likely to pick up the party’s nomination.
If he goes on to win the election, the version of Trump that Europe gets would likely be far more unhinged and outrageous than the one they knew — not just hinting to his entourage that he’d like to leave NATO, for example, but actually doing it, or following through on his recent vow to strike a “peace deal” on Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the heads of Ukraine and the EU.
Some European politicians would love to see such fireworks. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared late last month that Trump was the man who can “save the Western world” by ending the war in Ukraine, and members of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party say they would be happy to see the ex-president return, dismissing his stance on Ukraine as campaign theatrics.
But such views are a minority in the Old World, where the dominant sentiments about Trump’s return are dread and anxiety. “Trump is a nightmare,” said a European diplomat who was granted anonymity to discuss politics in another country. “This is not something you can really prepare for.”
Given the stakes, one might assume that European leaders are hard at work on a “break the glass” plan to enact in case Trump wins. But as far as POLITICO can tell from conversations with nearly two dozen European diplomats, experts and government officials, no such plan exists and none is in the offing.
“It’s a form of sleepwalking,” said Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst based in Berlin. “We have [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s form of sleepwalking, which dreams of autonomy and sovereignty. We have German sleepwalking, which is denial. And then we have British sleepwalking, which is detachment.”
“But there is no real effort to take responsibility for what could be coming around the corner.”
Ready, set, prepare
There is one way in which Europeans’ attitude toward Trump has changed: They’re no longer in denial.
Back in early 2016, when a slightly less grizzled POLITICO journalist was asked to do the rounds of European embassies and think tanks to ask about Trump getting elected, several officials haughtily explained that the question wasn’t worth answering because he had no chance.
Not so in 2023. Europeans are wide awake to the possibility of a Trump redux, and most of the officials POLITICO spoke to for this article called for the bloc to prepare.
“Europe must be ready to face any situation linked to the results of the U.S. elections,” former French President François Hollande told POLITICO in response to emailed questions.
“In a democracy, there is always the risk that the worst candidate can be elected,” he added. “The people decide. Trump has been president. He can become president again, even if today he faces a lot of legal trouble. What we need to prepare for is the United States distancing itself from European affairs and the possible unraveling of the transatlantic alliance.”
Several European diplomats struck the same note of stoic realism. “It’s increasingly on people’s minds. We need to plan for every eventuality and avoid the situation in 2016, where we were unprepared for both Brexit and Trump,” said a second European diplomat who was granted anonymity to discuss politics in another country.
Asked whether a second Trump presidency would be different from the first, the second diplomat said Europe should brace for the worst. “Who will sign up to work with him given his record on how he treats people and how he betrays them? How can he have a strong team? With everyone he pretty much parted ways. And everyone wrote books bashing him. Even the nut jobs wrote books.”
Adding to the unease is a sense that a reelected Trump may feel invincible. The former president has been impeached twice and faces several criminal indictments, including one for denying the results of the 2020 election. If none of this prevents him from taking office, several European officials argued, why should he feel any constraints on his behavior at all?
The prospect of Trump’s return is particularly vexing for Germany, a frequent target of his attacks. Having been caught completely unprepared for his election in 2016, German politicians are eager not to repeat the same mistake — hence Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s recent trip to Texas, where she met with Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Despite that outreach, however, Norbert Röttgen is pessimistic about his government’s readiness. The senior member of the German parliament, who’s highly influential on foreign policy in his country, said he hadn’t expected Trump to win in 2016, and neither had anyone in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s inner circle. The lack of preparedness made it especially important for Berlin to plan for Trump’s return. But, he said: “The government is in the process of repeating this mistake.”
To prepare for Trump’s return, Röttgen said the German federal government should urgently collaborate with its European partners to develop an independent defense policy. Unfortunately, I see no signs of this initiative within the government.”
Speck, the foreign policy analyst, echoed Röttgen’s pessimism on the degree of German preparations. The debate on whether Germany should increase defense spending “does not even exist,” he said. “Some were hoping that with the Zeitenwende [Berlin’s Ukraine-war-inspired pledge to ramp up military funding], Germany would leave the comfort zone and start to take security more seriously. But I don’t see any game changer.”
Other European governments are also trying to establish contacts with Republican counterparts. Diplomats from three EU countries said that their staff in Washington, D.C. were ramping up outreach to Republican officials in the House and Senate at all levels. One highlighted parallel diplomatic efforts, such as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s trip to Texas in May, as examples of London also gearing up for Trump’s potential return.
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a European lawmaker in Poland’s Law and Justice party, said his camp would welcome Trump’s reelection. “Our experience with Trump 1 was good,” he said. “Under Trump, we got progress on the physical presence of American troops in Poland, as well as the base which we have baptized Fort Trump.”
Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies in Europe since the start of Moscow’s invasion, even if relations have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks amid a spat over grain exports. Asked if Warsaw was worried about Trump’s promises to end the war in Ukraine “in one day” via a deal with Putin, Saryusz-Wolski dismissed the comment as electoral posturing.
“Obviously we are not naive there might be things that will change,” he said. “But if the change [of U.S. leadership] occurs we expect the deep American state will prevail over electoral promises.”
Meanwhile, several European officials underscored efforts already undertaken by EU governments to bolster the Continent’s strategic independence.
They argued that European powers have not only coordinated massive weapons deliveries to Ukraine, surpassing the U.S. in the total value of support delivered; European countries have also significantly ramped up production of ammunition on the Continent in an effort coordinated by France’s Thierry Breton, who’s the European commissioner in charge of industrial policy.
“The Europeans have already done a lot, more than most people could have imagined,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia. “Just look at the amount of European weaponry on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
Now that’s crazy talk
But there’s a big difference between spending marginally more on defense and seriously preparing for what Trump could reap in Europe — not least if he tries to follow through with his promise to strike a deal with Putin to end the war in Ukraine.
Such a move would not only pull the rug out from under the Ukrainians, who might feel huge pressure to give up part of their territory, but also be humiliating for the European powers that have cast their lot in with Kyiv.
In such circumstances, it would be “difficult to imagine” Europeans staying united on Ukraine,” said François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Security Studies. “They could try to help Ukraine, but all of a sudden they would be against the United States because it’s a deal negotiated by Trump. It’s a very black scenario.”
Even such a deal would probably only be the start of what Trump could do to transatlantic relations. In 2018, Trump raised the possibility of pulling Washington out of NATO and letting the Europeans fend for themselves — a course of action he was only deviated from thanks to the intervention of then National Security Adviser John Bolton and General Jim Mattis.
If reelected, it seems unlikely that Trump would invite similar figures into his cabinet, especially given how comprehensively people such as Bolton criticized him in books after leaving the administration.
The upshot is that a reelected Trump could do anything, including pulling out of NATO. That’s a terrifying prospect for Europeans who have relied on a U.S. security guarantee for the past 78 years — so much so that few diplomats and officials are willing to theorize about what it could mean for Europe’s future.
Security analysts who are willing to go there paint an alarming picture: Suddenly deprived of U.S. strategic leadership, European countries would face huge, daunting questions about how to reorganize the security alliance. Who would be in charge? Would NATO continue to exist? Would European countries make sacrifices to their social welfare model to accommodate much higher defense spending?
For Rasmus Hindren, a Finnish security expert, it would require a”singular event” — along the lines of Washington exiting NATO — for Europeans to change their mindset on defense. Even then, ramping up spending enough for Europe to be able to defend itself, sans the U.S., against a conventional Russian attack would be a “major problem” in the short term.
Then there is the question of leadership: Who would be in charge of a European security alliance? Paris? Berlin? Warsaw? A rotating selection of European capitals? And where would Europe’s military leadership be housed, given what Hindren called a “lack of strategic culture” in the EU’s executive branch? A solution is difficult to imagine, he said, given hostility between European powers and the fact that some countries, like Poland, trust Washington more than they do Brussels.
A case in point: the rapidly devolving relationship between Berlin and Warsaw. In the past few days, Poland’s right-wing government has ramped up calls for World War II reparations from Germany, while Berlin has said it is imposing checks at its border with Poland amid a visa-for-cash scandal in Warsaw.
“There is this lack of trust between some countries and toward Brussels that would complicate things,” said Hindren, who now works for the Finnish defense ministry but was a fellow at the Atlantic Council when he spoke to POLITICO for this article. “My hope is that if it was a really hard situation, Europeans would do the right thing, but it would not be easy given the polarized situation.”
In the event of a Trump-ocalypse in transatlantic relations, Speck sees an effective split emerging in Europe’s security architecture. Eastern European countries that share a border with Russia and others that feel immediately concerned by Moscow’s ambitions, such as the Nordics plus Turkey and Romania, would have a natural inclination to band together in a de facto security alliance. “You have the makings here of a kind of coalition to block Russia’s advance,” he said.
Such a group would add pressure on others in Europe to form their own blocs, pushing the Continent’s countries further apart. Put differently, one possibility for a post-U.S. security order in Europe could look a lot like what existed before World War I: a series of interlocking alliances at risk of tumbling into war with each other.
Scenarios like that remain, for now, distant possibilities, but it’s a sign of the times that they are no longer unthinkable. For Europe’s leaders, Trump’s potential return is turning out to be a waking nightmare: They see it approaching but can’t seem to do anything about it.
Photos by Seth Herald, Scott Olson, Jeff Swensen, Robert Perry/Getty Images and Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images