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24 January 2024

Can Europe defend itself in a hostile world?

A Trump victory in November would expose the EU’s fatal gaps in defence spending.

By Wolfgang Münchau

You know you are in trouble when your security depends on someone not getting elected. Donald Trump’s 2016 victory came as a total shock to Europeans. Mercifully, Trump was too chaotic back then to do too much irreversible damage. Four years later, the Europeans bet again on Trump not getting re-elected; that time they got it right – but only just. Right now, they are not betting. But they are also not preparing.

If Trump is elected in November, he will have a much more focused team. There is no shortage of Trumpist political operatives this time around. His most potent threat, from a European perspective, is to end financial and military support for Ukraine. He may also carry out his previous threat not to honour commitments under Nato’s mutual defence clause.

I have a lot of sympathy with the suggestion made by Rob Jetten, a senior cabinet minister in the outgoing Dutch government, who wants the EU to establish its own “pillar” inside Nato that “can operate independently if and when needed”. He also made the point that the EU spends three times more on defence than Russia, and yet is not capable of defending itself.

An independent European defence capability would require a huge increase in defence spending, from a current 1-2 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent or more – the prevailing level during the Cold War. And as Jetten suggested, European countries would need to spend the money more efficiently. If the EU wanted to get serious about defence policy, it would bring military procurement into the single market. It took a tiny step in that direction last year with a regulation that rewards member states when they cooperate on their procurement policies. It is a small programme for small countries.

A Trump victory would expose Europe’s underinvestment in defence like nothing else. The immediate emergency will be to plug the funding gap for Ukraine. The US has so far committed €71.4bn, more than half of it in the form of military aid. Number two is Germany with €21bn, followed by the UK with €13.3bn. Norway comes fourth. The three largest European donors are all members of Nato, but only Germany is a member of the EU.

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Herein lies the problem. Germany is not big enough to fill the gap left by the US on its own. France has committed only €2bn. A proposed EU support plan for €50bn is on hold because of a veto by Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister. Even if the US were to end weapons deliveries for good, Ukraine would still be able to defend itself with European support, though I doubt it would be enough for Ukraine to regain all of its Russian-occupied territories. When the war ends, Russia will not pose an immediate threat to Europe. But it may later. It will take a few more years until the Russian army has recovered. This scenario would leave the EU with a window of only a few years to bolster its defences.

The biggest obstacle to a common European response on defence is the lack of common ground between France and Germany. France is the only EU member state with nuclear weapons, and the only one with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Germany, however, is the bigger country. It spends more money on defence in absolute terms – €71bn in its 2024 budget compared with a French defence budget of €47bn.

Olaf Scholz has reorientated German defence cooperation away from France and towards the US. A Franco-German fighter aircraft project is in doubt, as is cooperation on a new generation of tanks. Defence procurement has been moving in the exact opposite direction to where it would need to go if Trump were elected. The foreseeable pipeline of current and potential German and French leaders does not make me hopeful, either. If Scholz is defeated in the 2025 German elections, his successor will most likely be Friedrich Merz, whose instincts would be to patch up relations with Trump, rather than to seek a European solution. Marine Le Pen and assorted young populists, meanwhile, loom large in France.

Today the special Franco-German relationship is largely a historical artefact. It lives on in occasions such as the 22 January memorial service for Wolfgang Schäuble, the former CDU leader and finance minister, who died in December. The two countries have established strong links, but they are pursuing incompatible economic strategies on fiscal policy and nuclear energy. Their economies are diverging, and so are their politics. I doubt that the election of Trump would change that.

Franco-German divisions also make it harder for Europe to wean itself off US financial dominance, which it leverages to put pressure on third countries. Independence from the US would require a strong capital markets union and an EU-level government bond.

My advice to the EU would be: don’t obsess over Trump; think about your long-term interests. Brussels cannot count on permanent US military support, with or without Trump.

I do not believe the EU will follow this advice. Joe Biden gave Europeans the hope of a revival of postwar Atlanticism – a dangerous delusion to which EU leaders still cling. What I expect to happen is for the EU to respond to the next Trump presidency in exactly the same way as it responded to the previous one – with a combination of arrogance and denial, and the distant hope that the good times will come back one day.

[See also: A European fiscal union is a vanishing dream]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars