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‘It’s Nearly Impossible to Prepare:’ How Europe Is Bracing for a Potential Trump Return

8 minute read

When Joe Biden attended his first G7 summit as president in 2021, his message to U.S. allies was “America’s back.” Their response, the president recalled to TIME in a recent interview, was: “For how long?”

Three years later, that question is at the top of European minds as they brace for the possibility—and, if recent polls are to be believed, probability—that Donald Trump could edge out Biden in the race for the White House in November. While the rematch between the current and former presidents has long been expected, the pair’s first presidential debate of this race—in which Biden appeared alarmingly frail (the 81-year-old president was reportedly suffering from a cold) compared to Trump’s typical bravado and bluster—put the reality of the matchup into much sharper focus across the Atlantic. Panic quickly ensued.

“American democracy killed before our eyes by gerontocracy,” Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who now serves in the European Parliament, wrote of the debate in an X post. German lawmaker Norbert Röttgen warned that “Germany must prepare at full speed for an uncertain future,” adding that “if we don’t take responsibility for European security now, no one will.” Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski appeared to suggest in a cryptic post that Biden should consider withdrawing from the race, noting that “it’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset.” Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was less subtle: “Joe Biden can’t do it.”

Europe survived Trump’s first term, of course. But the continent would find itself in a much more perilous position in a second term, particularly given Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which is in its third year with no end in sight. While many European leaders and policymakers are no doubt considering what such a scenario would mean for the continent, few are willing to speak about it publicly. “[The U.S.] is a country I know very, very well indeed, and because I know it very well indeed, I’m going to leave the debates that occur in their politics to them,” David Lammy, Britain’s newly-appointed chief diplomat, told TIME during a recent press conference in London. He did divulge that at least some preparation is underway, noting that he is maintaining links with American lawmakers across the political spectrum, among them Trump acolytes and advisers such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and former national security adviser Robert O’Brien. 

In private, however, other European lawmakers are more candid about the challenges that a potential Trump re-election would pose. “It’s nearly impossible to prepare for that because the main issue is [Trump’s] unpredictability,” a senior German official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, told TIME in June. Indeed, many Europeans remember Trump’s first term as being erratic and detached, defined by trade wars, isolationism, and deep skepticism towards the E.U. and NATO. In a second term, Trump has promised more of the same, telling TIME in a recent interview that he would take Europe to task on trade (“They don’t want our agriculture. They don’t want our cars. They don’t want anything from us. It’s like a one-way street”) and defense spending (“They’ve taken advantage of us, both on NATO and Ukraine”).

Read More: How Far Trump Would Go

It’s Trump’s seemingly dubious commitment to NATO, which holds its 75th anniversary summit in Washington, D.C. this week, that has transatlantic observers most concerned. “That is Europe’s key vulnerability vis a vis the U.S.,” says Majda Ruge, a Berlin-based senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. While the former president may not be able to act on his previous threats to pull the U.S. out of NATO, as such a move now requires the approval of Congress, he could demand that European countries dramatically increase their defense spending or even suggest, as he has previously done, that those who don’t be relegated to having fewer protections. Another proposal, floated by one Trump-aligned think tank, would be for the U.S. to maintain its nuclear umbrella over Europe, but otherwise downsize America’s security role on the continent.

Although European countries have been seen to step up their defense spending in recent years, among them Poland (which since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has doubled its defense spending to 3.9% of GDP) and Germany (where Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged to overhaul Germany’s defense policy in response to Russia’s invasion), and despite calls for greater strategic autonomy by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron and others, Europe remains heavily reliant on American security guarantees. “There is a growing awareness that America’s commitment to Europe is going to be much more volatile and much less straightforward if Trump is re-elected,” says Leslie Vinjamuri, the director of the U.S. and Americas program at the Chatham House think tank in London. “It’s really obvious with Trump that any prospect of getting more out of America is going to depend on Europe doing more.”

Europeans fear that volatility could also extend to U.S. support for Ukraine, which has already been hindered by costly delays as a result of Republican opposition in Congress. While Trump has suggested that ending the war in Ukraine would be among his first tasks if he were reelected, he crucially hasn’t divulged how. In the absence of such details, Europeans have stressed the importance of making support for Ukraine “Trump-proof,” in the event the former president should opt to significantly reduce or end U.S. military aid to Kyiv. While outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has floated the idea of a multiyear aid package to shield Ukraine “against the winds of political change,” many remain downbeat about the prospect of a full Ukrainian victory anytime soon. 

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is a full restoration of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea,” Czech President Petr Pavel told TIME in a recent interview. “But we all understand that it's not an easy task. It will not happen in the foreseeable future.”

Read More: A Sobering Message On Ukraine From a NATO Head of State

A less congenial and more transactional brand of diplomacy won’t be limited to NATO. Whether it’s dealing with matters as seemingly disparate as trade policy to the fight against climate change to relations with China, Vinjamuri warns that Eurpeans should expect Trump to link multiple policy issues together. “Clearly Donald Trump is going to turn to the tariff wars again,” Vinjamuri says, referencing the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to slap tariffs on steel and aluminum from the E.U.; the former president has proposed imposing a 10% tariff on all imports if he’s given a second term. “He is going to take on Europe on all manners of questions of trade, of Europe’s cooperation with China.”

“We’d like to think that you can separate out different issue areas,” she adds, “but if there’s a Trump reelection, there will be huge spillover.” In effect, a Trump administration could threaten to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe to force a policy shift on trade or threaten to change its policy vis a vis Moscow if European countries don’t shift their approach towards Beijing.

The sooner Europe is able to form a common position on these issues, Ruge warns, the stronger the front it could present against a bullish Trump administration. But the continent remains deeply divided, not least over its continued support for Ukraine, climate, and immigration. Those divisions stand to be exacerbated by the rise of far right parties, some of which already find themselves in government in half a dozen of the E.U.’s 27 countries. Spoilers such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán would be particularly emboldened by a Trump return.

Ultimately, whatever preparation Europe believes it should do in advance of November, it may already be too late. “Now Europeans are really taking this very seriously, but I think the timing is unfortunately suboptimal,” says Ruge, who co-authored a recent policy brief outlining six foreign policy scenarios that could face Europe in a second Trump term. 

In the brief, she and her co-authors noted that while European leaders and policymakers are no doubt aware of the challenges they will face in a second Trump term, “precious few policy measures” have been taken—a dissonance that stems from divisions within Europe over the risk a Trump administration would pose (some European governments, particularly in Hungary and Slovakia, welcome the prospect) and the extent to which they can weather a second term as they did the first.

 “The critical question is not just how these countries should prepare, but when they should have started preparing,” Ruge says, “and that is definitely not now. The process should’ve started two years ago.”

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com