Translated from German by Dr. Brían Hanrahan

Europe will see elections to the European Parliament in June, while the United States goes to the polls in November. Brussels would be advised to keep a close eye on events in Washington and make plans for a president who could again shun European allies.

The Americans aren’t interested, at least not the Republicans. Since early this year, worried European delegations have been making their way to Washington. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke at the Heritage Foundation think tank in January, heaping praise on NATO’s “European pillar,” above all the accession of Finland and Sweden. But his conservative American audience seemed indifferent.

The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addressed similar themes in a speech given at the German embassy during his Washington visit, but his appeal also seemed to fall flat. In February, just three Republicans met with the visiting chairs of the Nordic parliamentary foreign affairs committees, although the Lithuanian representative’s message was loud and clear: “If you want to avoid a second Pearl Harbor, you have to listen to us.”

Why should American taxpayers continue to pay for Europeans’ shortcomings, asked JD Vance at the recent Munich Security Conference? Writing in the Financial Times, the US senator from Ohio expanded his criticism: Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk had claimed on Twitter that Americans should be ashamed, he noted, but in fact Europeans should be feeling that way, he suggested.

During his visit to the United States, Chancellor Scholz addressed Republican voters directly via the pages of the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper now critical of the former president. But the move failed to pay off: 48 percent of Republicans and an increasingly large number of independents, a decisive group for November’s elections, think US aid to Ukraine is too high or worse, see it as an unequal “tax” on Americans. And those numbers are rising.

In February, just 22 Senate Republicans supported an aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, a group the media promptly labelled “dissenters.” No one “dared” to go against Donald Trump who recently campaigned on the idea that Russia could attack and “do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO state which “didn’t pay their bills.”

Even if Congress approves US aid this spring, these will be “as long as we can” funds – in other words, a short-term fix, no matter who is sitting in the White House in January 2025. Even if President Joe Biden manages to clinch re-election, he will not have large Democrat majorities in either the House or the Senate. In any case, American voters’ support for Ukraine seems to be dwindling.

Everything on the Table

If Europeans want to see a Ukrainian breakthrough against Russia before the end of 2024, they must take immediate responsibility for it themselves. European leaders will have to look beyond even “war readiness” and begin the transition to Europe’s own version of a war economy. Russia has already done just that, and is now hitting GDP growth of over 3 percent, not least because of its sanctions-busting measures.

Russian growth is forecast to remain stable in 2024, while Germany has predicted annual growth of just 0.2 percent. In this European election year, a new honesty is required. Hard decisions will have to be taken to boost Europe’s defensive capability and the resilience of its economy.

As Europeans, we have to reconsider the flexibility of public finances: Everything must be on the table, including tax increases, spending limits, increased innovation spending and the sharing of the debt burden. Europe well understands where its own interests lie: It means simultaneously preparing for two separate geo-economic and geopolitical poles of uncertainty.

The first pole is comprised of the “authoritarian coalition”: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, who between them are continuing to fuel conflict in Ukraine, the Middle East, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa. But the second pole of uncertainty is the United States, now a volatile power, whose democratic stability will be at stake in November’s presidential elections.

The European Union, and European member states in NATO, must act in coordination, finding new financial, institutional, and diplomatic energy. If they do not, the EU could become an increasingly irrelevant single market, with President Trump sending NATO into sleep mode.

Seriously but not Literally

During Donald Trump’s first term in office, Europeans were told they should take him seriously but not literally. The advice seems to have been correct, for the most part: Nothing came of threatened troop withdrawals from Europe, while the planned withdrawal from NATO was blocked by a new Congressional rule requiring a two-thirds majority.

The EU took the trade war just as seriously as the Americans: value and jobs were destroyed on both sides. The Trump administration even expanded programmes like the European Deterrence Initiative, an American military programme launched in 2014, and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (2017), both of which were put to use after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

During Trump’s presidency, Europe aimed to contain Washington’s irrationalities and, as much as possible, offer immediate responses to attacks in trade and security policy. Exhausted by pandemic management, economic rescue, rising inflation, and later the war and energy crises, Europe had little time or energy to reposition itself either structurally or in terms of actual politics. Another factor was the growing fear of voters, who were not trusted to cope with the complexity of the crises. This position implicitly accepted the growing strength of populist parties.

Despite differences of opinion on questions like Afghanistan, the Biden presidency has been far more amenable to Europe. But by the time the Democrat moved into the White House, Europeans had been worn down by the constant wrestling with the Trump administration and exhausted by the cascading effects of polycrisis.

New strategies were developed – on China, economic security, the European defence industry – and broad legislative packages were put together on technology regulation, industrial expansion, and “green” transformation. However, all of these things are still at an early stage of implementation. It remains to be seen if they will be enough to keep an unfettered American executive branch in check.

A Revolution Foretold

Trump’s erratic behaviour during his first term made him hard to predict. But things may be different the second time around, not least thanks to a wide-ranging strategic plan published by a right-wing think tank. As previously with Ronald Reagan, a conservative coalition centred on the Heritage Foundation has set about formulating the institutional and political direction of a “new conservative movement,” while also securing the project’s implementation in financial and structural terms. A second Trump term will be a revolution foretold. Europeans must take these strategic statements both literally and seriously. Not to do so would be an act of gross negligence.

In his first term in office, Trump’s worst impulses were thwarted by advisers, Congress, and the US civil service. Every chapter of the Heritage Foundation’s Mandate for Leadership: the Conservative Promise hammers home this point, insisting that advisers and career civil servants be quickly brought into ideological line.

It suggests that the civil service must be immediately gutted: 54,000 Trump “loyalists” – a list which has already been put together – are to be brought into government as quickly as possible. Ambassadors will be mainly “political” appointments, while both the State department and foreign aid will see severe structural cuts. “Institutionalizing Trumpism” will unquestionably mean that “people will lose their jobs,” Kevin Roberts, head of the Heritage Foundation, told The New York Times. “Hopefully their lives are able to flourish in spite of that,” he added cynically.

These anti-democratic strategies alone should make clear to Europeans that they will no longer be able to arrange things with “Trump the dealmaker,” as was still possible after he came to power in 2017. At that time, competing approaches to managing Trump created much discord in the European Union, with the US government happily playing the Europeans off against each other. In a second term, this approach will be turned into a strategy: Page 188 of the Heritage Foundation’s manifesto recommends that the United States should “[develop] new allies inside the EU – especially the Central European countries on the eastern flank of the EU.”

Creative Diplomacy

How should Europeans interpret the key messages of the conservative manifesto? How can they prepare in the months leading up the election? The answer must be to use creative diplomacy to communitise, multilateralise, and diversify the achievements of the transatlantic alliance.

Trump intends to divide Europeans. He will use the secret services as an “information weapon,” change sanctions policy, and effectively shut down NATO. The Europeans could have offered responses to all of these policies at the Munich Security Conference in February. They could have highlighted decisions that have already been taken, including the new framework structure for the joint purchase of ammunition agreed by several European NATO states.

Imagine German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and Finnish President Alexander Stubb together on a single stage, jointly announcing the financial and functional expansion of the hitherto impoverished European Peace Facility. Imagine a presentation of a framework agreement on new sanctions against domestic and foreign companies and individuals, citing examples of efficient European law enforcement.

European countries could also have announced improved defence cooperation and closer intelligence exchange with countries of the “expanded West,” such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. It speaks volumes that the joint “European Defence Industrial Strategy” was not ready in time for the Munich Security Conference in February: The publication date had to be postponed from February to March. What we saw at Munich was missed opportunities for sending diplomatic signals, and for actual consolidation in European defence and foreign policy.

But the new US conservative manifesto does hold some good news for Europeans: Trump will look to secure the Arctic more strongly against Russian and Chinese interests, something everyone in NATO has wanted for years. The plan to displace the Chinese Silk Road – the G7’s “Build Back Better World” plan – must also be pushed forward by Europe. We could see new opportunities for the EU’s “Global Gateway” connectivity initiative, as well as for European relations with the Global South under transatlantic auspices.

Hard Times on Energy, Trade, and Climate

In other policy areas, however, it will be much harder to find options to quickly and effectively counteract the possible plans of a Trump II administration. The interdependencies are simply too strong, above all because of the Ukraine crisis.

This is why conservatives have already fought so hard with the Biden administration on these topics. Energy, trade, withdrawal from international organisations: All of this will be approached in a spirit of retaliation. “War councils” will emerge that will encompass members of the Commerce and Energy Departments as well as the Pentagon.

Trump wants to use energy and trade policy to take revenge on China, on Europe, and on the international system in general. He will ignore moderate voices. According to the manifesto, negotiation with China is simply not worth it. This marks another departure from Biden’s policies, and it will be poison for the European Union’s de-risking projects in this context.

Emergency Preparedness

The possibility of a new Trump administration imposing punitive tariffs means the EU must immediately strengthen its internal market. But in addition to this, the EU must prevent damage to its own economy by identifying industries and products which could offer a response to new tariffs. Speaking of damage: Experts already estimate that Trump’s protectionist stance will cost over half a million American jobs.

The conservative manifesto plays directly into China’s hands by proposing to withdraw the United States from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, and possibly the World Trade Organization. At Davos this year, the Chinese premier Li Qiang announced the end of Western-led multilateralism, offering the existing 22 Chinese-led institutions as a possible replacement.

EU member states need to go back to the drawing board and begin planning how they can invest sustainably in Western-led multilateralism, despite budget shortfalls. This time, a straightforward “alliance for multilateralism” will not be enough.

As a form of government, democracy has been the exception throughout recent human history. Autocracies remain the norm. If the European Union, the world’s longest-lived project for peace, is to endure, it must remain vigilant and listen carefully when confronted with anti-democratic change, especially when that change impacts the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. If it does not, events will force it to.

About the author

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook is a Senior Advisor in the Europe’s Future programme at the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Read more articles on our 2024 European Elections page.