27th Feb 2024

De Croo: 'If 2024 brings 'America First' again, Europe on its own'

  • Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo also pledged to uphold the rule of law during his country’s EU presidency (Photo: European Parliament)
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Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo has starkly warned that if Donald Trump wins in 2024, Europe will be on its own.

In his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday (16 January) to mark Belgium's incoming EU presidency, De Croo said the June EU elections will serve as a significant challenge for European democracy, just like the US Congress and presidential elections.

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"A lot is at stake for Europe. A lot is at stake for the West," he said. "If 2024 brings us, 'America First', again, it will be more than ever, Europe on its own."

Last week, EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton also revealed how Europe was already warned in 2020 of such a potential scenario.

Speaking at an event in the EU parliament, Breton said that then US president Donald Trump told EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in 2020 that the US would "never come help" if Europe was attacked, and that Nato was "dead".

Trump's words were back then "a big wake-up call" for Europe and "he may come back," Breton said.

The French commissioner wants to ramp up the production of defence equipment within Europe through a new European defence investment programme, expected on 27 February.

Meanwhile, presenting the priorities to the Belgian presidency, De Croo talked about reviving the spirit of Jacques Delors, promoting market openness, and investing in energy, artificial intelligence, defence, and capital markets to make Europe "stronger, more sovereign, more self-reliant".

He also said Europe has "a duty" to support Ukraine against Russia's aggression and to find a long-lasting solution for the Israel-Hamas war.

"For America and other allies, the support for Ukraine is a strategic question. It is a geopolitical consideration. For us, Europeans, the support to Ukraine is existential, it goes to the heart of our security and our prosperity," he warned.

His remarks come after EU leaders failed to provide a €50bn aid package to Ukraine in December, due to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán's veto — and amid intense negotiations to ensure that Orbán does not block an agreement at the upcoming special European Council in February.

The Belgian prime minister said it is imperative for the EU to promptly deliver this assistance and military support.

Orbán's veto, widely seen as blackmail, triggered widespread criticism against member states for not taking forward the procedure of Article 7 against Hungary — which could see Hungary's voting rights suspended.

Nevertheless, De Croo also praised upholding the rule of law during his country's EU presidency. "We will continue to apply the procedure of Article 7," he said.

The war in the Middle East has driven a wedge between Western allies who unconditionally back Israel, such as the US and Germany, and those critical of Israel's military operation in Gaza, led by Spain, plus Belgium and Ireland. 

But Belgium has been gaining a stronger voice in this conflict.

"We need to make sure that the innocent citizens of Israel and Palestine and Palestine need to be protected," De Croo said, pointing out that humanitarian corridors need to be established and international law must be respected.

In a surprise move, Belgian deputy prime minister, Petra De Sutter, recently asked the Belgian government to take Israel to the International Court of Justice, like South Africa.

In this context, possible avenues for Belgium include an oral or written intervention in the South African case, EUobserver was told.

Green Deal pause?

In his speech, De Croo also said that one of the biggest challenges for Europe is making its economy strong.

"Europe cannot become an economic museum," he said, arguing that the 27-nation bloc is rallying behind the US and China. "The problem is, Europe is strong on innovation. But weak in scaling up those innovations," he said.

"We need an industrial deal alongside the Green Deal. It is not only vital for our prosperity but also crucial to win the fight against climate change," he said while warning about "leaving too little room" for EU companies to innovate.

Climate policies in China and the US, De Croo said, are full of positive incentives or rewards to their industries, while Europe tends to use a more punitive approach.

Europe should not only focus on "merely fixing the climate goals" but also "nailing down the way in which these goals need to be achieved," the premier said.

His words echoed previous calls for a 'regulatory pause' he delivered in mid-2023 — triggering criticism from green MEPs.

"Europe is struggling against the US and China in competition in the green transition [but] this is not the time to pause," responded Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts.

"When you run your legs can hurt a little bit, but I think that our societies are ready to continue in this marathon," he added.

Alongside an expected report on competitiveness from former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, the Belgian presidency has also asked former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta to come up with a report on the European single market.

Meanwhile, Belgium will also put forward a roadmap for the reforms the EU needs to undertake to enlarge to a group of more than 30 states.

"It is good not to be alone. Are we happy to be a class of 27 that defend one another in a world that is more turbulent than ever?", he asked.


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