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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
With former United States President Donald Trump ensnared in mounting and potentially politically terminal legal woes, some European leaders and politicians are breathing more easily . . . but only a little.
For months now, in the margins of global summits and gatherings — including Davos, the Munich Security Conference and the Aspen Ideas Festival — discussions have increasingly turned to considering what a second Trump term might mean for Europe and NATO, as well what its impact would be on the West’s support for Ukraine.
“It is all anyone wants to talk about,” said Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Everyone’s asking everyone else what’s going to happen. I hear people asking all the time what it will do to Ukraine if Trump gets back into the White House.”
Europe’s nightmare is still of a Trump return, but it’s a bad dream that’s been pushed to the back of the mind. With the former president declaring his candidacy, and recent court appearances and indictments merely fueling his popularity among his Republican base, however, many on the Continent are now asking, what’s the plan?
For most European leaders, Trump’s first term was — to say the very least — traumatic, accompanied as it was with threats to pull the U.S. out of NATO; a refusal to emphatically reaffirm the NATO Treaty’s Article 5, guaranteeing mutual assistance in the event of armed attack; and rifts on a range of issues from trade and immigration to sanctions on Russia and climate change.
Low points came in quick, unrelenting succession. In May 2017, a few months after he entered the White House, Europeans hoped a more moderate Trump might emerge, making strenuous efforts to placate and court the man Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper had dubbed the “Boor-in-Chief.” Surely, he would temper his campaign remarks, including his description of Brussels as a “hellhole” because of what he claimed was a lack of “assimilation” of the Muslim population.
But those hopes were rapidly squelched on Trump’s first presidential visit to Europe, dashing talk of resetting transatlantic relations that had been roiled by his turbulent election.
While Trump and his aides described the trip as a “success,” European leaders and officials complained that the team was ignorant of basic facts — notably on transatlantic trade. “Every time we talked about a country, he remembered the things he had done,” an official told Belgium’s Le Soir. “Scotland? He said he had opened a [golf] club. Ireland? He said it took him two-and-a-half years to get a license and that did not give him a very good image of the EU.”
And that first taste of Trump prompted then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a firm transatlanticist, to question where the Western alliance was heading. Speaking at a rally in Germany, she said: “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.” And while acknowledging that Germany and Europe should strive to maintain good relations with the U.S. and Britain, Merkel also said, “We need to know we must fight for our own future as Europeans, for our destiny.”
Her mood didn’t improve the next year, when at the G7 summit in Canada, Trump took two pieces of candy out of his pocket, threw them in front of the German chancellor and said: “Here, Angela, don’t say I never give you anything,” as French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel and others were trying to persuade him to sign a communiqué on a rules-based international order.
So, when Joe Biden — the most pro-Atlanticist president since George H.W. Bush — defeated Trump, there was unmitigated relief. “Relations will be less abrasive, and we won’t have to weather a presidential commentary of needling all-caps tweets,” a senior German official told me.
Gone was the White House’s encouragement of the Continent’s Euroskeptic populists; gone, too, was the cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Not that anyone expected all to be smooth sailing — both the U.S. and Europe had changed, and Biden seemed as though he might pursue an “America First” agenda, though not, as he pointed out, an “America Alone” one. However, the episodic questioning of the very value of the transatlantic defense pact Trump had engaged in, as well as the bruising encounters and brusque tweets aimed at European leaders, was now also gone.
However, after all this, some European politicians now fault their colleagues and national leaders for not drafting contingency plans and thinking hard enough about how to cope with a second Trump term.
French lawmaker Benjamin Haddad, a member of Macron’s Renaissance party, says no one should assume Biden will be reelected, nor bank on Trump being found guilty on the indictments filed this week by U.S. Special Counsel Jack Smith — the most momentous in America’s 247-year history.
“I believe Europeans are not taking seriously enough the probability of a Trump reelection,” Haddad told POLITICO. “Indictments, regardless of whether justified from a legal standpoint, clearly strengthen him for the Republican primary. And he’s neck and neck with Biden in the general election polls. At this point, it seems like a 50-50 scenario. Europe’s security cannot rest on the whims of the U.S. electorate,” he added.
Some planning in Europe has now finally begun on how to safeguard the transatlantic security pact — as well as how to cushion Ukraine from Trump. But not enough, according to a top lobbyist in Washington who represents some European countries. He asked for his name to be withheld in order to speak freely. “Are people preparing sufficiently for the possibility of a Trump administration? The answer is no. I’ve been saying we need to prepare for this because he looks weak in many ways, but he is the presumptive nominee,” he said.
Notwithstanding the indictments Smith has filed, contingency planning needs to get underway in earnest, the lobbyist emphasized, arguing that worst-case scenario planning is always prudent. “Especially when you consider all the consequences we would likely see with a second Trump administration, which would be so much worse than the first. Because the question is, who’s going to go into the next Trump administration? At least you had some very solid sort of folks going in the first time around. Who’s going to go back a second time? That’s especially scary,” he added.
And as a lobbyist, he’s been working with some Republican congressman to start erecting legislative guardrails to try and restrict a President Trump from withdrawing from NATO or cutting off aid to Ukraine.
But Daalder believes such legislation, even if passed, can only do so much to fence in Trump. “Okay, you can make it law that you cannot withdraw from NATO without Senate approval. The problem with that is you don’t have to actually pull out of NATO to destroy it,” he said. “And so, I really don’t think there is a legislative fix for this. The only way to avoid Trump destroying NATO is for Trump not to become president.”
“Some of the Europeans I talk with say if the worst happens, they’ll be able to weather a Trump presidency like they did the first time,” Daalder added. “But I tell them they’re whistling in the graveyard.”