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17th Feb 2019

Feature

What would a Trump victory mean for the EU?

  • Trump preparing for a TV interview (Photo: Gary Skidmore)

On the morning after Tuesday's (8 November) US presidential election, Europe is waking up to a populist business tycoon, who speaks in glowing terms of Russia's Vladimir Putin, likely to become the leader of the free world.

What the new president-elect, Donald Trump, might do will cause cold sweats in Europe’s chancelleries.

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  • "Is he a pleasant person? No", Simonyi said (Photo: Gary Skidmore)

Trump has spoken of abandoning Nato mutual defence, recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, scrapping EU free trade, and scrapping the Paris climate deal.

He has also spoken of jailing Clinton and whipped up racist hysteria in developments that risk emboldening autocrats and populists in Europe.

“He’s totally unpredictable. He has zero experience in foreign policy and we don’t know who he’s listening to. I know several of his advisors, and I don’t know who he really listens to”, Andras Simonyi, a Hungarian diplomat who heads a faculty on transatlantic relations at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, told EUobserver on the eve of the US election.

“It could be something insane, or it could be down to earth”, he said.

Steven Blockmans, a Belgian scholar at the Centre for European Studies - a think thank in Brussels - said US institutions, such as Congress, would have limited power to contain a rogue leader.

“Under the US constitution, presidents enjoy considerable latitude on foreign policy. Only Congress can officially declare war or ratify treaties, but presidents may use (or refuse to use) military force without explicit congressional approval. They can also enter into international agreements other than treaties, appoint powerful White House staff, and change US foreign policy by executive action”, he said.

“Individuals matter. Their character matters”, he said.

A US diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Checks and balances do exist, but more in the domestic than in the foreign policy realm, and even with them he [Trump] could do a lot of damage”.

Jonathan Eyal, a security expert at the Rusi think tank in London, said Trump might try to make a grand bargain with Putin that would “divide Europe into spheres of influence”.

He said that a bad deal, such as handing Ukraine to Russia in return for Russia helping the US to “fight some unspecified terrorists in some unspecified time and place”, would “encourage the worst instincts in Moscow”.

He added that a populist in the White House could prompt a “backlash in Europe”.

Eyal said right-wing populists in Hungary or Poland would take it as a green light to erode EU values, while left-wing “agitators” in France and Germany would use Trump as “an irresistible icon of the ugly American”.

”Not an idiot”

No matter who wins on Tuesday, Europe is unlikely to feel the effect until mid-2017.

Trump would not be sworn in until January and would require a few months to put his team and policies in place.

After Trump wins, there is a chance that Republican Party elites who distanced themselves from his campaign would come flocking back.

Rusi’s Eyal said Republican grandees would “gravitate back to him … to save the US by calming him down”.

“Congressional Republicans are going to exert a lot of influence if he should be elected”, he said.

Simonyi drew a parallel between Trump and Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor who also had little political experience when he became US president in 1981, but who conducted his foreign policy under the tutelage of respected figures, such as his secretary of state George P. Shultz or his defence chief Caspar Weinberger.

“The real question is whether Trump will listen only to himself or to the big boys in the Republican party”, Simonyi said.

Eyal said Trump does not look like the kind of man “who would sit in an armchair studying briefing papers” prior to taking decisions.

He said that Trump, in his business career, had always relied on his team of lawyers to make realistic deals, however.

“This guy’s not an idiot”, Simonyi said.

“Is he a pleasant person? No. I’ve met him and he isn’t. But you don’t get where he’s got to if you aren’t a tough guy. He’s outsmarted the smartest people in the Republican Party. He has his talents”, Simonyi said.

Manchurian Candidate?

If president Trump did listen to Republicans, he might well take a tougher line on Russia than his verbal accolades of Putin indicate.

The Republicans want the US to arm the Ukrainian military and to strike harder at Russia’s ally in Syria, president Bashar al-Assad.

If Trump did bargain with Putin on spheres of influence, he might also prove a tougher negotiator than his critics imagine.

Rusi’s Eyal said Trump’s campaign rhetoric did not mean he was a Kremlin puppet.

“A lot of the stuff he said on Putin - it’s just empty bragging to make himself look big. He’s never even met the guy”, Eyal said.

“Trump’s not the Manchurian Candidate”, Eyal added, referring to a Cold War-era film about a US president who was brainwashed by Soviet spies.

Simonyi added: “Every deal he’s [Trump] done, he’s bullied people into accepting his terms. He’s not a win-win guy. He’s a win guy”.

“The man is fickle. One false move from Putin and he [Trump] could turn around 180 degrees. This isn’t a guy to fool around with”, Simonyi said.

Ukraine aside, Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey who works for the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said US interests in the Middle East are so entrenched there would be “no change” in policy.

He said any US president would try to keep Iraq from falling apart, fight jihadists in Syria, protect Israel, and maintain the alliance with Turkey.

Judy Dempsey, who works for Carnegie Europe in Berlin, said: “Whoever wins, Nato will become more important … There is a deep consensus that Nato is the thread that keeps the transatlantic relationship together”.

EU defence

Rusi’s Eyal said Trump’s remarks on Nato indicate that he would force the EU to spend more on defence, not that he would scrap the alliance.

“The message is that he wants the Europeans to pay their share”, Eyal said.

Simonyi said Europe would have to pay more and show more readiness to use force whether Trump or Clinton won.

“The more the Europeans are wiling to pay, the more the Americans are willing to stay in Europe”, he said.

“The feeling of most American people is that America is paying for Europe’s defence and that Europe doesn’t want to share the burden”, he said.

“The feeling is: ‘You guys don’t get it. We protect you from Russia, but you criticise us for being tough on Russia sanctions. You ask us to protect you, to send more troops, then you build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline’,” he added, referring to Germany’s plan to build a gas pipeline with Russia.

He said escalating tensions with North Korea could force the US to pivot away from Europe no matter who won Tuesday’s election.

“The main topic in Washington today isn’t Russia … It’s that North Korea might go insane, which would mean the US couldn’t worry about Europe the way it used to”, Simonyi said.

Anti-Trump ‘hysteria’

Dempsey, from Carnegie Europe, warned EU leaders to avoid anti-Trump “hysteria” and “bandwagon” politics.

“Europe should take on a serious leadership role and start preparing an agenda of practical things that we could achieve together [with the US],” she told EUobserver.

“Whoever wins, Europe must have an agenda - on Russia, on migration, on trade, on how we’re going to deal with the Middle East and with Turkey, but also on the South China sea dispute”, she said, referring to a brewing US-China confrontation.

“If we don’t, the Russians will be very happy”, she said.

“EU leaders and ministers can’t afford to keep talking, for hours on end, about issues of existential importance for Europe without coming up with any serious proposals that can be implemented”, she said.

This article was updated on Wednesday morning to take into account the US election result

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