Calculations are shifting in European capitals on whether Donald Trump is likely to serve a second term as U.S. president. The consensus in Europe ahead of last week’s midterm elections was that he would most likely serve only one term in the White House, but the expanded Republican majority in the Senate is prompting a re-consideration.
That, in turn, is leading some European officials to argue that they will not be able just to wait out Trump for two years for a return to business as usual with a more traditional and Atlanticist Washington, but need to rethink now about the best approach to adopt towards a U.S. leader who largely sees foreign policy as a zero-sum game and is unsentimental about traditional American allies.
But there is little consensus on what to do.
A broad division is emerging among European policymakers — between those who argue they must take into greater account U.S. interests in a bid to try to improve strained transatlantic relations and those officials and leaders who want to adopt a more aggressive "Europe First" strategy on the grounds European courtship of Trump has already tried and failed.
The current debate is an echo of the one that followed Trump’s first few months in office, when European leaders were unnerved in their dealings with an American president very different from his White House predecessors and who eschews diplomatic norms.
In the run-up to last week’s midterm elections, many European policymakers made little disguise of their hopes that the Republicans would suffer a strong reversal in the polls, banking on the notion that a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives would be able to help them mold U.S. foreign policy more to their liking.
But the durability of Trump’s brand of populism has been partly emphasized by what observers call a “red wave” pushing the Republicans to strengthen their hold on the Senate. Some European policymakers and analysts say Trump could become even more difficult to handle from their perspective in the next two years.
They say he will likely double down on policies that roiled transatlantic relations in his first two White House years, which saw the U.S. leader pull America out of the Iran nuclear deal as well as withdraw from the Paris climate accord, lambast allies like Germany for running trade surpluses, and upbraid NATO allies for not spending more on Western defense.
“The formidable executive powers of the president, notably in foreign policy, remain untouched,” Norbert Röttgen, head of the foreign affairs committee in the German Bundestag, told Deutschlandfunk radio, shortly after last week’s midterms. “We need to prepare for the possibility that Trump's defeat [in the House] fires him up,” he added.
With Trump now looking to begin his run for re-election in earnest, Röttgen and others say he will be keen to galvanize his base of fervent supporters, and that with the House controlled by the Democrats, he has more room for maneuver to do that with foreign policy than when it comes to domestic issues.
“Transatlantic alliances are fraying,” warns Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the U.S. “The change of majority in the House will do little to alter U.S. policy on issues where America’s allies have differed with Trump, like climate change, Middle East peace, trade policy, Iran, Russia and the importance of international institutions,” he says.
Martin Kettle, a columnist with Britain’s Guardian newspaper says the midterms suggest that the Trump foreign policy revolution will become more entrenched. “He is more likely than ever to win a second term, especially if the Democrats are divided. These midterms therefore tell the rest of the world something very important. They tell us that America First is not going away, that it is on course to be the new normal, that it is not some unfortunate aberration that can be reset to the status quo ante of 2016,” he argues.
Here for the short-term or a longer term, Trump’s “America First” policy remains an awkward challenge for European leaders and is propelling some to advocate for a counterbalancing “Europe First” policy. But European divisions — as well as fears — are hampering any agreement on that.
British and German officials fault French President Emmanuel Macron for impetuosity, arguing his Gaullist pitch last week for a Euro-army and talk of Europe needing to free itself from military dependence on America was reckless at a time of growing transatlantic rift. Both Britain and Germany are deeply skeptical of Macron’s idea for a Euro-army. Skeptics say such a military could never make up for American military might and its importance for European defense.
As Macron was unveiling his Euro-army proposal on the eve of Donald Trump’s arrival last week in France for the centenary commemoration of the end of World War I, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, was striking a different, more placatory note. While acknowledging the midterm elections are unlikely to ease transatlantic tensions, he tweeted: “The United States remains our most important partner outside of Europe. We need to reassess and align our relations with the United States to maintain this partnership.”
In the immediate wake of the midterm elections, some European leaders are likely to make a greater effort to identify the few policies on which they can agree with the Trump administration. They are also likely to redouble efforts to reach agreement with Washington to solve trade disputes, say analysts.
One outcome might be greater European support for Trump’s China policy. Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, former British foreign minister William Hague praised Trump for calling out Beijing for its “deeply protectionist and nationalistic policy,” unfair trading practices and theft of Western technological know-how, labeling it “one of Trump’s achievements.” He is calling on other Western and Asian nations to wake up to the dangers of the critical threat China poses to the West.