Views from the Capitals: Europe reacts to President-elect Trump

What do EU countries think of Donald Trump’s victory?


Trump's electoral triumph has taken most of Europe by surprise. But whether that surprise is one of dismay or delight depends on one's position regarding 'the establishment'. For populist challengers of the liberal consensus, such as the UK's Leave campaigners, The Netherlands' Geert Wilders, Poland's Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński and France's Marine le Pen, Trump's win is a victory for the masses over the elite few – and a portent of things to come in Europe. It is no surprise that Europe's more traditional leaders, especially Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Matteo Renzi, are less enthused by his ascent to the White House. Most have sought to welcome the President-elect – albeit with varying degrees of warmth and conditions attached – but many questions remain about his famously unpredictable temperament. 

Trump's campaign statements, indicating his intention to put America first when it comes to international institutions and alliances, and his overtures to Russia's Vladimir Putin, will be the source of many sleepless nights between now and January. Whatever one thought of him, Trump the candidate was unconventional to say the least. The big question now is, will Trump the President re-shape America's role in the world, or will he himself be shaped by the establishment his campaign railed against? 


View from London: Trade hopes and defence fears

by Nick Witney

The UK hopes to find itself at the front of the queue for a post-Brexit trade deal, but worries about Trump’s disinterest in military allies.


Like other Europeans, Britons have generally reacted to Trump’s victory with a mixture of incredulity and dismay. But all politics here is now seen through the prism of Brexit – so, whilst few have tried to defend Trump the Man, Brexiteers and their tabloid press allies have been quick to celebrate, indeed claim credit for, Trump the Revolution. ‘An American lesson for all complacent elites’ opined the Daily Mail, taking the shock outcome as validation of its own hard-Brexit line.

The challenges of Brexit have dictated a strictly pragmatic British government response. Mrs May lost no time in warmly congratulating the President-elect, invoking the ‘special relationship’ and declaring that ‘we are, and will remain, strong and close partners on trade, security and defence’. You work with the President you are given, seems to be the attitude. And if he happens to own a couple of golf-courses in his ancestral Scotland then maybe there is an unexpected upside to be exploited. To judge by Foreign Minister Johnson's snub to his 'whingeing' EU counterparts, British government efforts to curry favour with the new President will likely be shameless. By contrast, most opposition parties have lamented the election outcome – but opposition parties count for little in today’s Britain.

May’s referencing of trade indicates where her early hopes are focused. Her recent unproductive trade mission to India (how galling that Indians, too, seem to insist that freer trade must go with freer movement of people!) has just underlined the problems Britain will face in shifting its economic relations away from Europe. Providential, then, that the next US President will be a man who denounced President Obama’s warning that a post-Brexit Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for trade deals. Pro-Brexit cabinet ministers are hugging themselves at the prospect of a US-EU trade deal being replaced overnight by the hope of a US-UK agreement. Less attention, of course, has been paid to Trump’s signature promise that such deals will put America first. Beggars cannot be choosers.

The ‘defence’ partnership that May also highlighted in her congratulatory message is more problematic. Retired generals have been queuing up to express their worries about NATO’s future under a US president who has called the alliance obsolete, and about where Trump’s bromance with Russia’s president may lead. Britain’s prominent role in leading NATO and standing up to the Russians has become, after the Brexit referendum, an even more important part of Britain’s identity, especially on the political right. Where will we be left if Trump goes for a ‘new Yalta’ – only this time with no British prime minister present?

Besides, Britain’s ‘special relationship’ and military prowess were meant to be important sources of leverage with which to secure good terms in the Brexit negotiations from insecure Europeans. The US election outcome has potentially dented the value of this ‘defence card’? While optimistic Brexiteers argue the contrary, pessimistic Remainers fear that an isolationist US will induce continental Europeans to seek their own salvation through EU defence integration – leaving Britain less a transatlantic bridge than an unmoored pontoon, floating irrelevantly in the eastern Atlantic.

If we did not realise it before, the US election has only served to reinforce just how profound the consequences of Brexit will be for Britain.



View from Warsaw: Schadenfreude and cool heads

by Piotr Buras

For now, delight in the upset to the liberal order seems to trump security worries regarding Russia.


Poland belongs to that group of countries in the EU for which Trump’s presidency could be a nightmare. Taking his foreign policy declarations from the electoral campaign seriously, Warsaw’s vital interests could be at stake when Trump takes office in January 2017.

The threat of nuclear or conventional aggression from Russia is seen in Poland as a very real possibility. As a result, the pledges made at the NATO Warsaw summit of July 2016 (including the scheduled deployment of  an American brigade and a NATO batallion in Poland) are percieved as vital to the country’s security. These commitments are now at risk given Trump’s questioning whether the US would defend a Russian attack against the Baltic states and suggestions that he could strike a deal with Vladimir Putin.

Against this backdrop, reactions to Trump’s success in Poland’s conservative media may seem surprisingly calm. In fact, what prevails is Schadenfreude at the Western liberal establishment’s second (after Brexit) humiliating defeat within the space of a few months. „First Kaczynski, now Trump” – the cover story of the most influential and strongly pro-government weekly „Wsieci” – and numerous other articles applaud Trump’s victory as the repressed majority rising up against the oligarchy of the left-liberal elites. Parallels between popular protests against Trump in some American cities and mass demonstrations against Kaczynski in Poland are also commonplace.

Meanwhile, the offcial reactions by the representatives of the government and the ruling party oscillate between  downplaying the possible negative effects of Trump’s foreign policy and full embrace of the results of the American vote.

“It will be good for Poland. We should remember that this is the moment of departure of the left of ’68, the left of the anti-values. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hillary Clinton represented this system. It would have been much more difficult to find a common ground with a person for whom the gender ideology and this kind of things are so important”

These words, by deputy foreign minister Jan Dziedziczak, were echoed by Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski after the emergency Sunday meeting of EU foreign ministers. He warned against treating Trump as a „difficult child” and argued that the EU’s concerns at a Trump presidency are „somewhat exaggerated”.

Most goverment representatives believe that Trump will stick to the military commitments made in July, not least because of the fact that Poland is one of the few NATO members which does meet its obligations (defense expenditure is more than 2% of GDP). Minister Krzysztof Szczerski, a key foreign policy advisor to President Andrzej Duda, also noted that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama started their terms with attempts to improve relations with Russia – only to later realise that was impossible. Trump may face the same disappointment and quickly realise that Europe’s security is, after all, in the vital interest of the U.S. Other PiS (ruling party) high-level representative  pointed out that Trump would have to closely cooperate with the Republicans and the GOP has always been a good friend of Poland.



View from Paris: “everything is possible”

by Tara Varma

Seen from Paris, Trump's victory, following Brexit, is a reminder that in 2017 everything is possible.

Post-election reactions in Paris initially all included the word “surprise” until commentators decided that Donald Trump’s victory was more of a “shock”. In any case, it is widely seen as a blow for all U.S. elites: political personnel, intelligentsia, the media, pollsters, and artists. This resonates dramatically with French politics, with the presidential campaign already well under way – especially on the right – with primaries due to start at the end of November.

The first to congratulate Donald Trump and the American people on their new-found ‘freedom’ was Marine Le Pen. She welcomed the fact that this wasn’t “the end of the world but the end of a world”. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy also saw positives – in this case for his own electoral future –  since “in a democracy, a president is elected, not chosen by the media and pollsters”. According to the Sarkozy camp, Trump’s victory is one for “the silent majority”, which may explain his efforts to bridge the gap with the Front National constituency.

In contrast, the French incumbent, François Hollande, and his main rival, Alain Juppé (who currently leads the polls), are each casting themselves as the only barrier standing in the way of Marine Le Pen and a descent into ‘extremism’.

After harsh criticisms of Trump during the campaign, Hollande has vowed to engage in “discussion” with the US president-elect, while expressing his will for France to “be strong and fulfil its responsibilities on the world stage”.

There is a consensus surrounding the unpredictability of a Trump presidency. This is partly a product of Trump’s volatile personality, but also partly due to the fact that French policymakers are much more familiar with Clinton and expected her to win. A victorious candidate is always unpredictable to those who did not predict their victory.

Consequently, experts worry about the future of the transatlantic relationship. As a candidate, Donald Trump regularly declared that he would challenge the traditional Western economic and security regime. And while TTIP isn’t a major concern in France, security definitely is: future US policies on NATO, Russia, Ukraine and Syria are high on the list of French worries about the incoming administration. Uncertainty on these issues – especially with regard to Russia – is mirrored in France’s domestic debate on foreign policy, which has created new divisions both between and within parties.

Angela Merkel and François Hollande’s co-ordinated responses to Trump’s victory both mentioned the necessity to protect and strengthen the EU. Observers point out more explicitly that now is the time to deliver on renewed calls to consolidate a European defence system. But both in policy and capability terms, this is remains a distant prospect.

Seen from Paris, Trump’s victory, following Brexit, is a final warning that in 2017 everything is possible.



View from the Hague: All eyes on Wilders

by Dina Pardijs

Dutch responses to Trump's victory focus on what the rise of anti-establishment politics means for The Netherlands' own election in 2017.


Famously unflappable Prime Minister Mark Rutte kept his cool when responding to the victory of Donald Trump. He congratulated the President-elect and emphasised the strong tradition of co-operation between the countries, especially on climate change, trade, and the fight against terrorism. Most opposition leaders were more pointed in their comments, noting the danger of divisive narratives, their worries about society, and the need for a message of optimism. Alluded to in their responses was Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, and the only Dutch politician whose reaction was widely quoted in international media.

Wilders, running on an increasingly popular anti-Islam and anti-EU platform, is internationalist in his nationalism. He is the only Dutch politician who regularly tweets in English (see #MaketheNetherlandsgreatagain), and he has enthusiastically supported Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen as well as Donald Trump with their bids to 'take their country back'.

Wilders has recently been building links with the American alt-right, travelling to the US for the Republican Convention, and becoming a Breitbart columnist. After the election he told journalists that this was the beginning of a 'Patriotic Spring', and that politics in the West would never be the same again.

Yet his party has gone down in the polls since the summer. It still comes second after Rutte's conservative party, VVD, but, in any case, who would trust polls after the events of this year? Despite this, it seems safe to say that the Dutch electorate is less enthusiastic about Trump's victory than Wilders is. In a poll this week 69% felt the outcome was bad for the US and world stability, although only 33% think this will have an impact on the Netherlands.

They might be wrong, as there is an inherent logical problem with Wilders' Patriotic Spring. In a less cooperative world, with a constellation of countries following nationalistic policies, it is unlikely that one of the smallest countries in the world will emerge victorious. Trump has already announced his intention to change US policy on all three of the issues Rutte mentioned in his speech, with possibly damaging effects to the security and welfare of the Dutch. However, the Dutch elections in March 2017 are likely to come too early to be affected by Trump's policy changes, and will more likely be characterised by ‘patriotic’ momentum than long-term realism.



View from Berlin: Germany is bracing itself for President Trump

by Almut Möller

The German government is to step up its efforts to keep Europeans together.


9 November is a historic day for Germans. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came crashing down on that day, and in 1938 pogroms across the Deutsches Reich became the starting point of the systematic persecution of European Jews. Both 1989 and 1938 are also strongly linked to German-US history, and the formative role that the US has played in shaping post-war Europe. The United States played a leading role in liberating Germany from the Nazi dictatorship, and in the aftermath of 1989, helped bring about a European order that Germany, until now, has benefitted from greatly.

As Berliners woke this morning to the news that Donald Trump had made it into the White House, there was a sense that yet another chapter is opening for Europe on this historic day. But this time, there is a feeling that it won’t be a chapter of partnership, but one of unpredictability. It is a new chapter in which the decades-old foundation of the transatlantic relationship – shared values – may be called into question.

The German political class was deeply shocked when the news came in, and Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen was the first representative of the federal government to express her thoughts in an early morning interview. We are now entering a political vacuum, von der Leyen said, in which there will be a struggle behind the scenes to figure out who the new points of contact in Washington are.

Von der Leyen understood that no matter the candidate the US expects more self-reliance from Germany and the EU on security matters. But she pointed out that this development is already well under way, including in a rising German defense budget. She added that also the US needed to be clear about its own future role in the alliance.

Norbert Röttgen, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and a member of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, commented early in the morning that for him the result was unbelievable and indeed unthinkable – “what happens now that the voice of anger (“Wut”) enters the White House”? For the first time in transatlantic relations, he argued, it was impossible to predict what US foreign policy would look like under President Trump in what is an overall insecure geopolitical situation anyway.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivered a longer, candid, and at times personal statement in which he reiterated the concerns that both von der Leyen and Röttgen raised: “We do not know how Trump will govern the US, many questions remain unanswered despite our efforts”. In a visibly thoughtful mood, Steinmeier stated that “Nothing will be easier, many things will become more complicated”. Yet, the foreign minister also called for Germans and Europeans to keep their sense of reason (“Vernunft”) and foster their political culture in this time. At the same time, he underlined Germany’s new role: “What we have achieved together here in Germany – economic reason combined with social responsibility – has made us a recognised partner within Europe and beyond. And we can stand confidently to this.” He also pointed out that there were countless interpersonal and political ties between Germany and the United States that must be maintained and cultivated.

Angela Merkel made her own statement some hours later at noon. Her message was distinctly more sober and clear cut. There is no doubt that relations with the US are the most important for Germany outside of Europe, and are built on common values: democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and human dignity, regardless of origin, colour of skin, religion, sexual orientation or political views. “On the basis of these values I offer the future President Trump strong cooperation”. Full stop. This was mostly a clear message to German voters who have never found cooperation with the US easy, in particular on fundamental questions such as the use of military force and data protection. If President Trump continues to run roughshod over fundamental values, as he suggested he might in his campaign, the German Chancellor will be left with little room for engagement, despite strong German interest in maintaining strong relations.

To fully understand and interpret the reaction in Berlin one has to go back to 24 June 2016, the morning that the city woke to the news of Brexit. The UK leaving the Union brought the spectre of a crumbling EU to Germany. Less than six months later, the second pillar of Germany’s foundations in the West, and of its foreign policy at large, has been put into question. One cannot underestimate how deeply troubling these developments are for Germany’s political elites.

Having said that, initial reactions suggest that Berlin is willing to continue and boost its efforts to lead the way for a Europe with many challenges on the horizon. Brexit led Berlin to step up its efforts to keep Europeans together, and these attempts will gain a new urgency following the US vote. What remains implicit at this time is that the path ahead might have to be walked without the US at its side, if only temporarily.

It is not just the spectre of a crumbling EU that looms large in the German mindset, but Germany facing its own election campaign. The contest will pick up speed around the same time that Donald Trump will begin to practice foreign policy in the spring of 2017. If Trump does indeed follow through on his policy pledges – on NATO, Russia, climate change and the UN, to name a few areas of deep concern for Berlin – the question of European security, and Germany’s role in it, will no doubt come to the fore in the federal election campaign. Germany is bracing itself. 2017 will not only a year of unpredictability for German and European relations with the US, but one in which the future of Europe and the West will have to be debated – especially among Germans in election mode.



View from Madrid: Spain’s anti-Trumpism tempered by pragmatism

by Francisco de Borja Lasheras

Spanish anti-Americanism has been dormant since the Bush years but could flare up again under a Trump presidency. 


Spain has conflicting loyalties when it comes to the US. As NATO allies the two have enjoyed generally positive relations, but there is a deep-rooted anti-Americanism that cuts across not only a far left close to Cuba and Venezuela but also some of the old guard within the establishment. These segments tend to embrace a non-alignment posture, and lean towards a Russia paradoxically seen as a bulwark against Yankee imperialism.

The Iraq war was extremely unpopular in Spain and Socialist PM José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero enjoyed a difficult relationship with the George W Bush Administration. But the United States’ reputation in Spain improved dramatically under the Obama administration, leaving the anti-American caucus as a residue of the old days, perennially griping over America’s supposedly sinister meddling in the EU or Ukraine. Madrid has in recent years cultivated strong bilateral economic ties and allowed for a reinforced US military presence on its soil.

Spaniards’ preference for Hillary Clinton over a Donald Trump perceived as a semi-fascist populist was overwhelming. Trump’s victory has thus been received as terribly bad news on top of Brexit and rising xenophobia elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish public dislike Putin (in contrast to some of their elites); they are predicted to be anti-Trump too. Though many might maintain a balanced view of the United States itself, a Trumpist US could once again be seen as a threat to the world order (the images of Guantanamo still linger) and perhaps even to Europe.

Politically, there has been a divide between Europeanists and liberals following Angela Merkel’s cool, values-based message, and those making overtures to the new Administration. PM Rajoy and his People’s Party have warmly congratulated the magnate and called for closer relations. PSOE and Ciudadanos (liberals) have reacted more cautiously, bemoaning the uncertainty to come and stressing the importance of European values, while taking the opportunity to criticise Podemos, Spain’s own populists. Podemos themselves,  especially the hard left elements in their coalition, have taken the strongest line against Trump, labelling him a fascist. The irony of rejecting Trump as an autocrat while cosying up to Putin seems to be lost on them.

Brexit, populism and autocrats challenge the foundations of modern Europe. Spain is braced for its own reckoning on what role it wants to play in this unsavoury context. A country that left dictatorship behind, nowadays embraces democracy, LGBT rights and secularism, though  its foreign policy over the last decade has often been at odds with these values. Tough dilemmas are ahead. Madrid cannot enforce its values on the US but its default option cannot be uncritically accommodating either.



View from Rome: No crying over spilt milk

by Silvia Francescon

Renzi may have backed Clinton, but he remains open-m​inded about Trump and sees little reason to worry about his own upcoming popular vote.


Prime Minister Renzi was the only European leader who openly endorsed Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The result of the election may not be what he was hoping for, but he is a strong believer in the friendship between the Italian and the American people. This is the spirit in which he called to congratulate President-elect Trump. During the call, Trump apparently reassured the PM on the strong ties between the two countries and confirmed his engagement with the G7, the next summit of which will take place in Sicily in May 2017, under the Italian Presidency. It could be Trump’s first visit to Europe.

PM Renzi waited for President Obama’s speech to make his thoughts public: Italy will remain a close ally of the US and intends to keep pushing its traditional agenda, including climate change. Nothing was said about foreign policy, it being too early to comment, but Renzi did make the point that he expects President Trump to be different from candidate Trump.

According to a survey by Demos, only 11% of Italians would have voted for Trump and 77% for Clinton. Yet parts of the opposition were very satisfied with the outcome: Five Star Movement’s Beppe Grillo could hardly contain his euphoria, drawing parallels between his own Movement and Trump and describing his victory as a slap in the face of  the media and the establishment. Equally, North League’s leader Matteo Salvini, who supported Trump from the beginning, said he expects the new President to play a crucial role in improving Europe-Russia relations as well toughening up Europe’s stance on migration.

Some argued that the anti-establishment victory could have repercussions on the Constitutional Referendum (December 4th), seen by many as a vote on Renzi himself. However, most political influencers deny any immediate correlation. If Renzi loses the Referendum on the Reform of the Constitution (as the polls suggest he will) this will have had nothing to do with Trump’s victory. The same goes for other imminent elections in Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. In contrast to some commentators, most establishment figures do not see Trump’s rise as part of a global wave of populism which is about to hit mainland Europe.

It is too early to assess what Trump’s victory means in terms of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, some foresee a possible US-Italy alliance on lifting sanctions against Russia, an issue on which Italy has been isolated within Europe. On the other hand, Rome is less optimistic about Trump’s more drastic positions on NATO, global trade and climate change. For now it is too early to make any definitive judgements about the future course of this traditionally strong relationship.



View from Sofia: The End of the Transition

by Denica Yotova

Bulgaria's new President has much in common with Donald Trump. Could this work to Bulgaria's advantage?


The morning of 9 November 2016 could be seen as the end of Bulgaria’s ‘transition period’, which curiously began on the same date 27 years ago with the fall of the Berlin wall.  The victory of Donald Trump could be perceived as the end of the post-1989 era and the consequences for countries like Bulgaria could be significant, even though Bulgarians do not seem to take it into account yet. The peaceful transitions of small Eastern European countries from totalitarian regimes to democracies would not have been possible without the security guarantees of the US. With Trump calling those guarantees into question, his ascent to power is far from comforting.

Since Trump’s victory last week, Bulgaria has, of course, elected its own strongman president, former Air Force Commander General Rumen Radev, backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The two have much in common – both ran on anti-establishment platforms and both hold more hopeful views for balanced relations with Russia.

Yet, curiously, Radev is also overtly pro-NATO and pro-EU, a position that will thwart any strategic re-alignment with Russia. Despite the fact that he is portrayed as a pro-Russian president by the media, he is likely to share Western Europe’s concern at Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for safeguarding allies. He will also likely share the outgoing government’s hope for closer bilateral ties with the US, including US visa liberalisation for Bulgarian citizens (but given Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration, this hope is likely to go unfulfilled). So far Radev has said very little in public about the President-elect, except to note that Bulgaria has always had good relations with the US and he would seek new opportunities to continue building on that. 

In contrast with the former government, who had hoped for a Clinton victory and a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, the Bulgarian public seemed to prefer Trump during the US election campaign. According to some polls, his support level in Bulgaria was as high as 75%.

The key issues that will decide whether Trump remains popular in Sofia are much the same as in other European capitals: Trump’s unpredictability and intention to re-shape alliances and institutions to put America first are no less worrying here than elsewhere. But given the similarities between Radev and Trump, there is also hope that the two may yet carve out a positive working relationship that will give Bulgaria an advantage over its European partners in dealing with the new administration. Fingers crossed, but no guarantees.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Rome Office
ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Programme coordinator, European Power
ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Programme Coordinator, Africa programme

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