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‘By the way, Nato is dead’: If Trump wins, Europe is on its own

In the event of the US no longer having Europe’s back, the EU will have to find a new balance between foreign policy, security and defence

The spectre of a Trump victory in November’s US presidential elections is haunting European Union and Nato policymakers in Brussels.

Donald Trump is committed to “a complete re-evaluation of Nato’s purpose and mission” if he wins the election, as current polling suggests he can do. At Davos in 2020 Trump told the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the French and Irish commissioners Thierry Breton and Phil Hogan: “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you and to support you.” He added: “By the way, Nato is dead, and we will leave, we will quit Nato.”

The exchanges were recalled by Breton in Brussels as he publicised the €100 billion European Defence Investment Programme he is preparing for an EU summit next month to boost joint EU weapons procurement for Ukraine. Breton is in charge of industrial policy and his plan involves directing EU weapons producers away from exports to do that.

The story illustrates how rapidly the EU’s foreign policy, security and defence scenes are developing under pressure from wars in Ukraine and Gaza and from forthcoming elections in Europe and the US.


European Union foreign, security and defence policies are agreed by consensus among the 27 member states. Unlike in areas where policy is delegated to the commission exclusively – such as trade – or subject to majority voting – as in most other areas covered by the treaties – individual states can hold up agreement. As seen in recent policy on Gaza and Ukraine, they can and do exercise this right.

The EU is not itself a state but a composite polity managing deep interdependence between its sovereign member states. Federal models therefore have limited application as an endgame; but federalising moves towards more majority decision-making are to be expected if EU foreign policy effectiveness is to be improved in the face of such geopolitical challenges and uncertainties.

While there is a growing link between foreign and security policies, defence remains most strictly rooted at state level – and in Nato. The EU’s Strategic Compass document agreed in 2022 brings them together analytically. Nevertheless, common policies are constrained by three factors: different outlooks among the member governments; policy divisions in the member states; and institutional disorder in Brussels.

There were few differences in government outlooks on Ukraine, making for a unified response to Russia’s imperial invasion. There were no really obtrusive divisions within the member states. And the often fissiparous institutions in Brussels held together, making for EU policy unity on Ukraine. It has also enabled deeper military co-operation through Nato, resulting in closer transatlantic co-operation with the Biden administration. Hungary and Slovakia have since shifted towards Russia, and right-wing gains in European and national elections this year could tip the balance, even before a Trump victory is factored in.

Comparing Ukraine with Gaza reveals what happens when the three constraints come into play. That was starkly the case between Germany and Spain, for example, along with others for and against a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. In France there are deep divisions on support for Israel. And public differences between von der Leyen, the aid commissioner, the council chairman Charles Michel and the external relations head Josep Borrell became a case study in institutional disorder.

All this showed up at EU summits, UN voting and international visits, so much so that the Italian policy analyst Nathalie Tocci concludes: “Europe’s approach to Ukraine held the premise of showing what a geopolitical Europe could mean. The Middle East now reveals its demise.”

That could change if war escalates in the Middle East and figures such as Borrell exert more leadership on a ceasefire and political negotiations, in association with other international players. But for the moment Tocci’s verdict stands.

It is often said that the EU develops qualitatively only in response to crisis. A Trump victory in the US elections would definitely qualify as a big one. It might coincide with right-wing shifts in European Parliament and national elections, and these would create their own momentum into next year.

Trump’s foreign policy advisers are reported to divide between primacists, who support the unilateral exertion of US power; prioritisers, who focus on China and Asia, not Europe; and restrainers, more opposed to foreign wars. All would want to reduce European commitments and there would be far fewer institutional checks and balances or experienced individuals to restrain him.

It will therefore fall to a new commission and political leadership in the EU, reflecting electoral trends and public opinion, to craft a response this year and next. Greater strategic autonomy for the EU seems likely, expressing a new balance between its values and interests, and between foreign policy, security and defence.