Why the EU must fashion a tough pre-Trump agenda

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Lulled by the opinion polls and its own wishful thinking, Europe expected US foreign policy continuity following a Hillary Clinton victory. Now, Europeans must awaken to the unpredictable change and volatility a Donald Trump presidency will bring.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweeted her reaction only minutes after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat. It was, as is usual with the tweets of political leaders, or those generated by their staff, anodyne. She said that transatlantic ties “are deeper than any change in politics. We’ll continue to work together, rediscovering the strengths of Europe.”

Waiting to see whether President-elect Trump implements his campaign pledges once he moves into the White House is definitely not the course the EU should adopt. On the contrary, Europe must set out very clearly what it sees as the transatlantic and even global agenda for 2017 to 2020.

All too often, the European Union only reacts to developments, and even then reveals its disarray. It is usually loath to set out in advance its own red lines on foreign policy issues. That’s understandable, due to the EU’s complex consensus-building mechanisms – but it’s also a major hindrance.

Hoping for restraining influences is not a policy the EU should espouse

The prospect of a Trump administration signals not just a tectonic shift in American politics but also a potentially huge disruption to global growth and security.

It may be that the Republican Party, with its majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, will furnish the new president with a cabinet, and especially a Secretary of State, with the authority and experience needed to mitigate his campaign promises and threats.

But hoping for restraining influences is not a policy the EU should espouse. Europe’s national leaders must resist the temptation to grandstand with their own reactions to Trump’s election win, and instead fashion a common European response. And they must do so proactively, before President Trump sets foot in the Oval Office in the third week of January.

The elements of the agenda the EU must set out are clear enough. On security, the countries grouped in both the EU and NATO need to reassert their commitments to collective security, and invite the United States to do the same within the Alliance. Trump’s campaign rhetoric has raised significant question marks over the future of NATO, as well as over developments in the Washington-Moscow relationship.

Security is set to be among Europe’s greatest concerns, given the uncertainties in Ukraine, Syria and the wider Mediterranean and Caspian regions.

Far from being the main security guarantor, it seems possible the United States will soon be the source of greater instability. That possibility demands the preparation of a concerted European position capable of heading off trouble.

The EU must unite to ensure that surging American nationalism does not further disrupt the extremely vulnerable international system

On the economic front, Trump’s protectionist sentiments and his opposition to multilateral trade deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) pose a serious threat to US and EU trade and investment – and to the global economy too. Trade in goods and services between Europe and America is worth US$1.5 trillion a year, and transatlantic investment stands at $2.5 trillion annually. A dent in that would send shockwaves around the world, so the EU needs to set out its intentions clearly and quickly.

Donald Trump’s election reflects an alarming mood swing in America. It echoes the Brexit referendum in the UK and populist trends around Europe. Many voters in the rich industrialised countries of the West now contest globalisation. At first it was welcomed, opening new markets; but increasingly globalisation is being rejected as unfair because business investors are moving to lower-wage countries.

If Trump’s ‘America first’ slogan means that the US will oppose the global governance reforms being demanded by emerging economic giants then great dangers lie ahead. Instead of being the world’s policeman, America will become its principal threat.

That’s why the European Union must prepare to take centre stage. The EU’s governments must unite to ensure that surging American nationalism does not further disrupt an international system whose economies and security are already extremely vulnerable. Doing so will prove the true worth of the European project, and would reverse its decline.

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