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BIPR | Trump-Proofing Europe? An Autonomous European Security and Defense Capability at Last?
Trump-Proofing Europe? An Autonomous European Security and Defense Capability at Last?

March 4, 2024 - 18:30

Paul Taylor, Journalist and Policy-analyst

Event Recap

Can Europe shield itself from the turbulent winds of Trump-era geopolitics? With recent remarks from former United States (US) President Donald Trump, encouraging Putin to do whatever he wants with NATO countries that don't meet the alliance's defence spending target, concerns have escalated. Grounded in nearly five decades of writing about European security and contemporary politics, Paul Taylor highlighted Europe's deteriorating security situation and the urgent need for better European defence capabilities, both to build NATO's credibility and to be able to act where NATO and the US are not involved. The path forward for Europe requires a delicate balance of cooperation, innovation, and a fundamental shift in mindset.

Taylor's narrative wove through the annals of European history, highlighting the tumultuous journey from centuries of inter-state conflict to the formation of alliances aimed at preserving peace. The aftermath of World War II left Europe in ruins, physically, economically and in many cases morally. In response, NATO emerged in 1949 under US "benign hegemony" with a mission to prevent internal strife and external aggression. The establishment of a rules-based international order, underpinned by American influence, provided a semblance of stability.

The Europeans failed in a first attempt to establish a European Defence Community in 1954, due to French concerns about German rearmament and loss of national sovereignty. As a result, European integration proceeded as a purely civilian, economic project, giving some Europeans the illusion that peace could be guaranteed by trade, economic interdependence, common regulation and the United Nations.

As long as the Cold War lasted, NATO's protection under a US nuclear umbrella suited everyone. But the collapse of the Soviet Union led to questioning of NATO's future. The 1992 Treaty on the European Union (TEU) — commonly known as the Maastricht Treaty — enshrined not only plans for a single European currency but also for a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), leading to "the eventual framing of a common defence policy which might in time lead to a common defence".

Yet shrinking defense budgets, the lack of harmonization among European countries, and the absence of a common strategic culture hindered progress. Tayor described the EU as a "vegetarian power in a carnivorous world," relegated to the sidelines of global power dynamics. There are several potential implications of a Trump presidency for European security: challenges posed by his disdain for NATO and the EU, hostility towards established global institutions and free trade, urge to dismantle climate change initiatives, and proclivity for disruptive actions. These factors combined with escalating conflicts on its borders in Ukraine and Gaza, place Europe at a critical juncture. Russia's overt aggression and covert operations against EU countries further underscore the urgency of the situation. European leaders must embark on a fundamental reassessment of their defense strategies, making a reality of the concept of "Strategic Autonomy." Trump's rhetoric should act as a catalyst, sparking robust cooperation on cybersecurity, intelligence sharing, defense innovation and joint procurement of arms and ammunition.

As the talk unfolded, Taylor delved into the complexities of European defense cooperation. He underscored the pivotal role of joint procurement initiatives and the rejuvenation of the defense industry in bolstering resilience. While the notion of a European army had been set aside as too divisive, the pragmatic imperative was to fortify existing frameworks, use EU tools such as collective borrowing to fund defense investment, deepen collaboration among EU Member States, with non-EU European countries such as the UK and Norway, and between the EU and NATO. Taylor's closing remarks echoed a sentiment of cautious optimism tempered by realism. The journey towards Trump-proofing Europe will be fraught with challenges. Yet, European elites now understood the need to strengthen their defenses and the collective resolve to safeguard Europe's freedom and democracy should serve as a guiding light. The alternatives – a beggar-thy-neighbour scramble to buy bilateral insurance from Trump, or a neutered Europe permanently prone to Putin's aggression – were too awful to contemplate, he concluded.

Trump-Proofing Europe? An Autonomous European Security and Defense Capability at Last?

hosted by Professor Michael Leigh

Paul Taylor
Journalist and Policy-analyst

Paul Taylor is a Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe and a freelance columnist at The Guardian.

He was previously a foreign correspondent for Reuters and columnist for POLITICO. Taylor has published 12 studies on European defence and security issues for the Brussels-based think-tank Friends of Europe since 2017. His most recent report, released in June 2023, was on the defence of Europe after Russia's war in Ukraine. He graduated in History and Modern Languages from Balliol College, Oxford, before joining Reuters in 1977. In 39 years with the agency, Taylor specialized in European politics, economics, defence and diplomacy, and the Middle East, reporting from London, Paris, Tehran, Bonn, Brussels, Jerusalem, Berlin and Cairo. From 2008-2016 he also wrote a fortnightly "Inside Europe" column for the International New York Times. From 2016-2023, he wrote a twice-monthly "Europe-at-Large" column for POLITICO.
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