If Germany was the EU’s lonely leader in January 2016, it is even more so now. The United Kingdom is set to leave the EU in the coming years and there has been increased resistance to the EU among the Visegrad countries. Some of the crises, felt so sharply last year, have subsided for the time being, most notably the refugee crisis.
But a new challenge has presented itself for 2017, and its name is Donald Trump. With the election of Trump, the reach of Euroscepticism extends to the Oval Office. Even before his inauguration, Trump’s team have demonstrated their lack of faith in European integration and the cohesion of the EU. In a call last week Trump’s team even asked which country will be next to leave the EU. American presidents before Trump have seen Germany as the informal leader of the EU, but none has openly described the bloc as a “vehicle for Germany”, or thought that exiting it is a good thing.
In his transactional approach to foreign policy, Trump is weakening the hand of Merkel and thereby improving his own position. He will know, or has been briefed on, how much the EU means to Berlin as a framework that fosters the German interest, so he has talked Europe down in a divide and rule approach. He has also sensed that the Achilles heel of Berlin’s lead role in Europe is the sneaking suspicion of German hegemony. For Trump, nourishing that suspicion to raises the transaction cost of German policies in Europe. In promoting this narrative Trump may reinforce anti-German sentiments among member states, dividing opinion over the role of Germany, and thereby weakening consensus in Brussels. Another part of Trump’s strategy is to put Europeans on the defensive, firstly by questioning the US commitment to NATO, and secondly by denouncing integration as a means to steal trade from the United States. Both propositions mark a watershed in transatlantic relations.
The magnitude of this change in stance is reflected in the view Europeans take on the relationship. Unlike political leaders in France, Germany and the UK, which after the Brexit referendum have shown little evidence of consistent thought, there is a great degree of consistency in public opinion of these three countries – at least when it comes to relations with the US. A representative poll conducted by ECFR in December 2016 shows that less than 16 percent of the population in France and Germany, and 27 percent in Britain, see the US as a “very” valuable ally for Europe, compared to 34 percent in Spain and 31 percent in Poland. Likewise, the ‘big three’ of Britain, France and Germany are most pessimistic about the future of transatlantic relations. The polling data shows that 40 percent of the French, 39 percent of the Germans and 36 percent of the British expect relations to get “much worse”. In Poland, this view is shared by just 14 percent, and in Italy by 19 percent.
Asked on which policy issues Trump could “do the wrong thing”, Germans and Britons hold the most critical views among all large EU member states on 11 of the 13 issues raised. On the reverse question – what could Trump do right – the most popular answer among German, French and British respondents, using the same 13 issues, is “none of the above”. Respondents in Poland and Italy hold the most positive views on the Trump presidency, while consolidated data indicates that across the EU there is a sense that Trump will make the wrong decisions on soft issues and the right ones on hard issues.
Questioned about which relationships (Europe, China, Russia, Israel, or NATO) Trump would mishandle, European consensus falls apart. While French and Germans worry most about Europe, Poles worry about how he will handle Russia. Interestingly, however, Poles worry least among all six large EU countries about Trump’s NATO policy, while Germans worry most. The British public is more concerned about Trump’s China policy than anyone else among the large EU countries, followed by the German public.
When asked which bilateral relationships Trump would handle well, the strongest answer of all Europeans taken together is “none of them” with 36 percent of the popular vote, followed closely by Russia with 35 percent. Scepticism is strongest in Germany, France and Britain, where 47 percent, 46 percent and 41 percent, of respondents say “none”. The most positive view of Trump’s relations with Europe and NATO are found in Poland (41 percent, 30 percent) and Italy (38 percent, 26 percent).
Taken together, these findings suggest Europeans have grasped the significance of Trump’s election for transatlantic relations. Except in Poland and Italy, citizens of most large EU countries do not see relations with the US staying the same or improving under Trump. Scepticism and criticism are most visible in France and Germany, and to a good degree shared by the British public. It seems that the political challenge posed by Trump is sensed more strongly there than in other parts of the EU. In light of the upcoming elections in both France and Germany, these patterns in public opinion could play out more strongly than they would otherwise. French and German nationalists have welcomed the strongman and anti-establishment attitude of Trump, while at the same time harbouring anti-American sentiments. These ideas are inconsistent, and once Trump acts on his announcements regarding trade, jobs, or finances, his admirers in Europe will have to choose which side of the fence they sit on.
In intellectual terms, these are hard times for Europe’s political leaders. Faced with the potential of disruption, they should be thinking about alternatives more than they seem to be. The traditional transatlantic relationship has been eroding for some time, though it always proved to be more comfortable for leaders not to think in terms of discontinuity. Doing so would have meant to spell out the alternative in earnest. Analysts have repeatedly suggested that the basis for transatlantic partnership would shift from Europe’s inability to defend itself to its ability to do so. But policymakers have never really believed this to be the case. After all, they have seen, on many occasions, that the US was willing to live with an unfavourable burden-sharing agreement for the greater good of American leadership in the West. Similarly, the possibility that the EU could fall apart has been rejected by policymakers, not least because accepting it as a real possibility would force them, too, to think (and eventually talk) about what they are prepared to do differently in order to prevent disintegration.
With Trump, all this denial could come to an end. “Europe’s destiny is in the hands of the Europeans”, Merkel said in response to Trump’s judgement on the EU and NATO. One has to wonder whether she could really mean it this time.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.