Europe Braces for Potential Trump Return in 2024 US Election as Strategic Independence Grows

Anxiety is probably one of the most common mentalities in Europe right now. This mentality is vividly reflected in the theme of the 2024 Munich Security Conference-“lose-lose”. Europe’s anxiety stems not only from geopolitical and economic uncertainties, but also from the uncertainty of the 2024 US election. Rather, it’s the possibility of Trump once again winning the White House. In fact, Europe’s anxiety has existed since the last US election. Although Biden’s election gave Europe a sigh of relief, Trump’s high vote share in the last election has always been a lingering shadow in Europeans’ minds. As the U.S. election approaches and Trump leads the polls, discussions about “Trump’s return” are gradually heating up and fermenting in Europe. How to prepare for the possibility of Trump’s return has become a serious and urgent issue that Europe currently has to face.

Europe’s triple doubt

2024 is an unprecedented election year. The European Parliament and many EU member states will hold elections, and Europe is facing a new round of political reshuffle. However, for Europe, the US election in November is no less important than Europe’s own elections, because this election is related to the future of Ukraine, NATO and the EU itself. If Trump’s election in 2016 was a black swan, then Trump’s return in 2024 seems to be a gray rhino. Although Europe has experience in dealing with Trump, the equally experienced Trump may also implement his governing philosophy more forcefully, causing huge uncertainty on a series of major issues related to the fate of Europe.

The first is the direction of the Ukraine crisis. Although the crisis has entered its third year, it remains Europe’s primary geopolitical concern. Europe has always relied on the leadership of the United States on the Ukrainian crisis. Therefore, Europe is most concerned about whether the U.S. policy toward Ukraine will change after the election. Judging from the battlefield situation, Ukraine’s counteroffensive since last summer has not achieved the expected results. Russia and Ukraine have entered a stalemate, but this situation may change with the election of Trump. Currently, due to opposition from Republican lawmakers, the U.S. House of Representatives still fails to pass a $60 billion aid bill to Ukraine. If Trump is elected, the hope of passing the bill will be even slimmer, which means that Europe may need to shoulder the task of aiding Ukraine alone. During the campaign, Trump once said that after being elected, he would “end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours.” His prescription was to cut off aid to Ukraine and pressure Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, which would go against the current mainstream European policies. conflict. In short, Trump’s election will make Europe face a dilemma on the Ukraine crisis. Accepting Trump’s plan means retreating from the current position and compromising, while rejecting it means that Europe may need to independently lead assistance to Ukraine. Both of these two I am afraid that these are currently unbearable for Europe.

Second is the future of NATO and the transatlantic alliance. The transatlantic alliance has been revitalized during the Biden administration, and the Ukraine crisis in particular has further strengthened NATO’s position as the backbone of the transatlantic alliance. However, Trump’s isolationist foreign policy tendencies may put the future of NATO and the transatlantic alliance at risk. Facing the test. There has been a long-standing dispute between the United States and its European allies over the sharing of NATO defense expenditures. Trump has taken this disagreement to a new level, even threatening to withdraw from NATO or not fulfill the collective defense obligations stipulated in NATO’s Article 5. In December 2023, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment in the annual National Defense Authorization Act to prevent the U.S. president from withdrawing from NATO without the consent of Congress. This amendment is obviously a precautionary measure against Trump’s possible return to the White House, but it may still be difficult to dispel European doubts. If Trump is re-elected, he may impose more threats and pressure on NATO’s European allies and conduct a “fundamental re-evaluation of NATO’s purpose and mission.” Even if it does not withdraw from NATO, the credibility of the United States’ commitment to its allies may be questioned, and such doubts may trigger a test of NATO’s collective will.

Europe’s third concern is the impact of Trump’s election on the EU itself. Right-wing populism is on the rise in Europe as the Ukraine crisis triggers a European energy and inflation crisis and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict threatens to trigger a new wave of refugees. Trump has close ties with European right-wing populism, and also actively supports the immigration and Eurosceptic stances of European right-wingers such as Orban and Meloni. In the context of frequent interactions between right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic, Trump’s return will further stimulate right-wing populist forces in Europe and intensify the rightward shift in European politics. This will pose further challenges to the EU on issues such as immigration, climate, and aid to Ukraine. challenge and impact the EU’s ongoing deepening and enlarging reforms. Trump’s election may also lead to divisions within the EU over how to deal with the Trump administration. Right-wing populist governments in Europe tend to maintain friendly relations with the United States, while other member states may use this to strengthen European strategic autonomy. This means that Trump’s election will not only divide transatlantic relations, but also create more problems within the EU. of cracks.

Preparing for Trump’s possible return

Although the US election is far from settled, Europe has to prepare for Trump’s return. From the perspective of importance and urgency, Europe’s preparations mainly focus on three aspects: supporting Ukraine, strengthening defense capability building, and responding to possible trade conflicts.

Europe is increasing its economic and military support for Ukraine at both the multilateral and bilateral levels. At the multilateral level, in February EU leaders approved a 50 billion euro aid package for Ukraine over the next four years, including 33 billion euros in loans and 17 billion euros in grants. In the context of stagnant U.S. aid to Ukraine, this is considered a strong signal from Europe to the United States that the EU has begun to play a leading role and assume greater responsibility in supporting Ukraine. At the same time, the EU also provides military assistance to Ukraine through the European Peace Fund and is planning to reform and increase the fund ceiling. According to statistics, from 2022 to now, the EU has provided 6.1 billion euros in military assistance to Ukraine through this fund. On March 15, the heads of France, Germany and Poland held a trilateral meeting within the framework of the “Weimar Triangle” and reached new measures to aid Ukraine, including continuing to purchase more weapons and ammunition from the global market and using frozen Russian asset interests for Aid Uzbekistan and so on. At the bilateral level, EU member states are also increasing security guarantees and assistance to Ukraine. In January, the UK became the first G7 country to sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine. EU member states such as France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands also followed suit and signed similar agreements with Ukraine. These agreements usually contain two aspects. The first is to provide vague “security guarantees” to Ukraine and promise to negotiate response measures when Ukraine is attacked; the second is to provide Ukraine with medium and long-term military support at the bilateral level and strengthen Ukraine’s defense capabilities for future attacks.

Strengthening defense capability building has become a top priority for the EU, both out of the need to support Ukraine and the need for Europe’s self-defense when Trump reduces its commitments to Europe. In terms of defense construction, Europe’s preparations are also carried out at both the multilateral and bilateral levels. At the multilateral level, on March 5, the EU issued the first-ever European Defense Industrial Strategy to strengthen Europe’s industrial and technological foundation in defense, including strengthening Europe’s investment and coordination in weapons research and development, production and procurement. The introduction of this strategy is regarded as a milestone in European defense independence. At the Munich Security Conference, European Commission President von der Leyen said that if re-elected, a special “Defence Commissioner” would be established in the next European Commission to assist in the implementation of the EU’s defense industry strategy. At the bilateral level, NATO European members are increasing defense budgets and investments. According to statistics, in 2024, 18 NATO member states will have their defense budgets reach the 2% threshold requirement, which is six times that of 2014. The total defense budget of NATO European member states in 2024 will reach $380 billion, which will be the first time in history to reach 2% of the overall GDP of NATO European member states, which is an “unprecedented growth.”

The EU also needs to prepare for Trump’s possible trade protectionist measures. In his first term, Trump imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, including those from the EU, on the grounds of “national security.” The EU immediately retaliated and imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S.-related products. This dispute has continued into the Biden administration. Nor is it resolved. If Trump is re-elected, he may impose tariffs on more EU products on the grounds of “national security.” In this regard, on the one hand, the EU is committed to reaching a consensus with the Biden administration on the Global Sustainable Steel and Aluminum Agreement and continuing to communicate with the United States on the Inflation Reduction Act; on the other hand, one of the EU’s priorities this year is to deepen Single market reform to enhance the competitiveness of the single market in response to the trade war that Trump may initiate. Ironically, the trade war launched by Trump on the grounds of “national security” may pose a threat to the EU’s economic security, but the EU’s “Economic Security Strategy” may not be prepared for this, because this strategy is more Target China.

European strategic independence has promising prospects

Trump’s first term in office inspired Europe’s tendency towards strategic independence. As the possibility of Trump’s return increases, Europe once again realizes that rather than being led by the uncertainty of the US election, it is better to strengthen its own capabilities. Take your destiny into your own hands. Regardless of whether Trump is ultimately elected, this possibility alone is already reshaping European policy choices. Given Trump’s uncertainty about the transatlantic alliance and the deterioration of Europe’s security situation, strategic autonomy is not just an option but a necessity for Europe. Although some European countries do not explicitly use the concept of strategic autonomy in order to consider the feelings of the United States, and true strategic autonomy also requires long-term and sustained investment, European strategic autonomy as a consciousness has been awakened and is becoming more and more deeply embedded in Europe. Policy concepts and practice.

Especially as Europe pays increasing attention to and invests in defense, Europe is undergoing a “rearmament” in a sense. Under such circumstances, will Europe bid farewell to the strategic culture characterized by multilateralism and normative power formed after World War II and give birth to a new strategic culture? This is an issue worthy of attention. On February 26, at an international conference on aid to Ukraine hosted by France, French President Macron’s remarks that he “does not rule out sending troops to Ukraine” triggered an uproar in public opinion. If viewed in the context of Europe’s strategic independence, Macron’s words are by no means a simple slip of the tongue, but a well-thought-out test of the waters. This test of waters may be just the beginning.

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