Sunday, 18 September 2016

Europe's Trump remedy

France and Germany this week launched a proposal for common EU military defence. If Europeans are worried about developments in the US election, they should be open to the idea.

Here in Europe, reactions to the election fiasco taking place across the Atlantic vacillate between bemusement and panic. "He can't really win, can he?" is a question I am asked almost daily.

On Friday, the question was asked by my hairdresser, a Turkish-German woman who lives in the Wedding area of Berlin. There was a real look of fear in her eyes.

US presidential elections have for the past half century been watched closely by the rest of the world - particularly after 1990. As the world's sole superpower (for now), the US government takes decisions that directly impact the entire globe.

Nowhere is that more true than in Western Europe, where people have been living under American suzerainty since the end of the Second World War. In some parts of Europe, particularly the UK, people follow US elections closer than they do their own. It is an item of endless fascination, and the most mundane developments in the campaign make the front pages of European newspapers.

As an American journalist covering European politics, it has been a subject of intense frustration for me. I went on a bit of a rant about it in February, asking Europeans to please stop obsessing over the US election. I even went so far as to say I was refusing to talk to Europeans about the US election any longer. Needless to say it was a threat I didn't carry out, particularly after Trump clinched the nomination.

I couldn't carry out my threat because, as much as it annoys me, there is some sense to Europeans' US election obsession. It is an election which will hugely effect them, But it is one they have no say in.

And this is what I find most objectionable. Yes, living in an American military protectorate means that someone in the UK, Germany or Poland should probably be watching what's happening across the Atlantic. But what frustrates me is that Europeans just blindly accept this state of affairs, and seem to have no interest in making those US elections less impactful on their lives.

America's Berlusconi

Some of the news about Trump seems very funny to Europeans. They laugh at his antics, the same way they used to laugh at stories about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Except this is a different kind of laughter. Jokes about Berlusconi were irreverent. Trump elicits a nervous laughter.

Let's face it, Italy is not a very important country. Sure, it's a G8 economy (although analysts have questioned the legitimacy of its place in this group), but until the euro crisis, Italian leadership changes didn't have much impact on the world outside Italy. 

Of course, during the height of the euro panic in 2011, Italy's clownish prime minister wasn't funny any more. And so he was duly dethroned by Angela Merkel.

Merkel can't dethrone Trump. But Trump could dethrone Merkel. A clown can run Italy, but if a clown is running the most powerful nation in the history of planet Earth, we have a problem.

No more NATO

Europeans have a particular problem, because they depend on America for their military defence. And Trump has suggested that this defence would be over under his rule.

Trump has struck an isolationist tone on the campaign trail which has resonated with Americans, who are distrustful of foreign intervention after the Iraq War. He has repeated this "America first" policy endlessly on the campaign trail, but it was his very specific words on the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that threw the capitals of Europe into panic (aside from Moscow, which was jubilant).

During the Republican National Convention, Trump told The New York Times that the NATO mutual assistance alliance would not be ironclad under his presidency. If European nations are attacked by Russia, they would be on their own if they have not paid their NATO dues.

His words stunned Europe, but really, Europeans should not have been surprised. The United States has grown increasingly frustrated with European countries failing to meet their financial obligations under the alliance - namely spending at least 2% of their GDP on their national militaries. Only four NATO members other than the US routinely do so - Poland, Greece, Estonia and the UK. Last year the UK missed the target, spending 1.9% of its GDP on its military.

The United States accounts for 75% of NATO spending. By any reasonable definition, this makes NATO a US military protectorate. But the US isn't happy about this state of affairs. Indeed, its interest in maintaining European security lessens with each passing year. 

On his most frustrated days, Barack Obama probably wishes he could say what Trump said. His former Defence Secretary Bob Gates walked right up to the line in 2011, but stopped short of suggesting that the US might not come to Europe's defence if Europe hasn't been paying its dues.
"For most of the Cold War US governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50% of all NATO military spending," he said. "But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75%. The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress – and in the American body politic writ large – to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense. Nations apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defence budgets."
The message could not have been clearer, but Europeans have chosen to ignore the message. And now, when Trump crosses the rhetorical Rubicon and says US protection is not guaranteed, Europeans are shocked. Shocked!

An EU army

Which brings us to this week's developments. At an EU summit in Bratislava, from which the UK was excluded, France and Germany presented the first iteration of a proposal on common EU military defence

This is not a proposal for an "EU army", as the British tabloids have been claiming this week. But it could be the first step toward pooled military capability separate from the American NATO military protectorate. 

The Franco-German plan would establish an EU defence headquarters, a common satellite surveillance system and the sharing of logistics and military medical resources. It would strengthen the already-existing Eurocorps, an intergovernmental military body that coordinates 'rapid-reaction' battle groups (which have never been used).

Why is this proposal coming now? Well the Bratislava summit was intended as an opportunity for 27 EU heads of government to meet without the UK, and plot a course for the future of the EU after the (theoretical) British departure. 

The UK has always been the roadblock to EU military cooperation. With the UK gone, Europe may finally be able to develop the capacity to defend itself.

Time to grow up, Europe

So what does this have to do with Trump? For me, there seems to be a real disconnect here in the way Europeans see their future. The idea of an EU army, long championed by various French and German governments, has never been popular with the public. Each time further military cooperation is proposed, no matter how minor, the proposer is always at pains to stress that this is not an EU army.

But Europeans can't have it both ways. If they are frightened of the prospect of a President Trump, and alarmed by the waning US interest in European defence, why just sit on the sidelines and whine about it impotently?

For all the moaning about Trump I hear from Europeans, it is never followed with ideas for how to make a Trump presidency less impactful here. Perhaps, rather than turning their stomachs into knots worrying about an election they have no vote in, they should think of ways to make the outcome of those elections less important.

If the EU had the capability for self-defence, Trump's threats to dismantle NATO wouldn't matter. If the European economy were more self-sufficient and less reliant on the American bedrock, it would be more shielded from the effects of a Trump economy. If Europeans were capable of managing geopolitical crises in their neighborhood without US assistance, a Trump foreign policy would be less alarming. So, why not work to make all this happen?

I'm not naive. I've lived on this continent long enough to know that such proactivity is not in the European character. But the Trump fiasco should show Europeans that there may not be any other choice. It should pour cold water on European delusions that continued servility is a safe option. 

For things to stay the same, everything has to change. If Europeans want to continue living a peaceful, productive life, they need to start developing self-reliant institutions and ween themselves off their dependence on America. Independent EU military capability is a huge part of that. 

Europeans may have an instinctual distrust of the idea of an EU army. But if it would mean they don't have to stay up at night worrying about a President Trump, perhaps its not such a bad thing.

No comments: