Europe ponders dependence on fickle United States

Europe Letter: Experts warn that support for Trump reflects enduring differences between old allies

French economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire: ‘The United States has not been a friendly partner to European states for several years now.’ Photograph: Getty

French economy and finance minister Bruno Le Maire: ‘The United States has not been a friendly partner to European states for several years now.’ Photograph: Getty

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The United States election has stirred debates in Europe about whether it needs to reduce its dependence on the old transatlantic alliance.

The presidency of Donald Trump caused a cooling in relations. He described the European Union as “a foe”, pulled out of the Paris climate accord and the internationally brokered Iran nuclear deal, and gave notice of withdrawal from the World Health Organisation.

The EU found itself increasingly isolated as a proponent of what it calls “international co-operation and the rules-based international order”. And crucially, from the outset, Trump equivocated on his commitment to the Nato principle of collective defence, which has underpinned Europe’s security since the aftermath of the second world War.

For these reasons and others many European capitals hoped for a victory by the Democratic candidate Joe Biden. The former vice-president is seen as an old-school transatlanticist who values the relationship with Europe above others, and is known as a friendly and familiar face, not least from the Munich Security Conference where US and EU officials traditionally gather each year.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The United States has not been a friendly partner to European states for several years now

Citizens favoured Biden too. An Ipsos poll of countries around the world found that Biden had the support of the majority while Trump could muster only 10-11 per cent in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. The outlier was Poland, where Trump and Biden each had 27 per cent support in the poll.

Yet in recent days, analysts and politicians alike have tripped over each other to make the observation that no matter what the outcome of the election, it would be a mistake for Europe to count on the US as an ally in the way it has been in the past. 

They argue that Trump is no aberration – his enduring levels of support reflect that – and the underlying currents driving EU-US estrangement will persist regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. The United States has not been a friendly partner to European states for several years now,” said French economy minister Bruno Le Maire as US votes were counted. “Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is elected by Americans tonight or tomorrow, nothing changes this strategic fact ... The American continent has detached itself from the European continent.”

The US and EU disagree on several key trade issues, including digital taxation, tech regulation and privacy rules, and in the long-running dispute in which each side accuses the other of providing unfair subsidies to the aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus.

Europe will also continue to be caught in the middle of a rivalry between the US and China. Washington is hawkish, and has pressured European countries to exclude China’s Huawei from roles involving key infrastructure. The EU is more conciliatory, and sees Beijing as a partner on a number of issues including on combating climate change, while acknowledging it is a rival in other fields.

Perhaps more profoundly, Trump reflected, rather than created, a shift in mood in the US away from international entanglements and its role as the so-called “world’s policeman”.

There are many people in Ireland who would be relaxed about this or indeed welcome it. But it has profound implications for Europe’s security and defence policy, particularly because the EU has struggled to assert itself in recent years in standoffs with nearby powers that are interested in aggressively expanding their regional clout, and sometimes their territory.

‘Strategic autonomy’

There’s Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and considers ex-Soviet states including some EU members to be its legitimate sphere of influence. There’s also Turkey, which though it is itself a Nato member, has increasingly clashed with the EU as it pursues its interests through military ventures from the Middle East to North Africa to the Caucasus.

The catchphrase for Europe gaining the power to stand alone is “strategic autonomy”. It means not relying on the muscle of the US to be convincing in geopolitical disputes. But not exclusively: since the start of the pandemic the idea has been used to argue for ending over-reliance on China and India for key medical and pharmaceutical supplies.

Talk of strategic autonomy reached such a pitch in recent weeks that the German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was moved to intervene in an opinion article in English. In it, she argued that it was both a fantasy for Europe to imagine it could stand alone without the US, and that it had to build up its own strength to defend its interests as well.

“Europe remains dependent on US military protection, both nuclear and conventional,” she wrote bluntly. “We have to acknowledge that, for the foreseeable future, we will remain dependent. But at the same time, we must also realise that we need to spend and do a lot more to keep the peace, defend liberty, strengthen our values and reinforce the rules that we believe should be in force around the globe.”

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