Issue Briefs

How worried Europe plans to deal with a Trump presidency

How worried Europe plans to deal with a Trump presidency

Michael Binyon

September 9, 2016

Europeans have made it overwhelmingly clear that they neither like nor trust Donald Trump. Polls show that on average, 85 per cent of those asked have no confidence that, were the Republican contender to win the presidential election, he would do the right thing. In Sweden, that figure rises to 92 per cent.

Deep dislike

Mainstream European politicians have denounced Mr. Trump as racist, attacked his stance on Muslims and criticised him as a dangerous, unreliable demagogue. Analysts say that he is the most extreme candidate ever to be a presidential candidate, and warn of the dangers to world peace, global economic stability and historic links between Europe and the United States if he wins in November. The influential German news magazine Der Spiegel has called him the most dangerous man in the world. J.K. Rowling, the British author of the Harry Potter books, said he is worse than Voldemort.

Rooting for Hillary

But although many take comfort from Hillary Clinton’s lead in the opinion polls, no one is yet writing off Trump’s chances of being elected. Too often in recent European elections the polls have proved to be spectacularly wrong. They did not forecast that David Cameron would win last year’s British general election. They forecast a heavy defeat for those wanting Britain to leave the European Union in the recent Brexit referendum. They have consistently underplayed the popularity of right-wing, nationalist politicians across Europe. Why should the polling results be any better in America?

Europeans know that populism is real

Secondly, Europeans have seen a wave of anger with establishment politics sweep across their own continent, and believe the same phenomenon is now evident in the U.S. Trump is seen as the product of an angry mood in America, where huge swaths of the population feel they have been left behind, are threatened by globalisation and see America’s standing in the world diminished. On many divisive issues, race, wealth, tax, the role of government and the right of ordinary people to carry guns and speak their minds freely  Trump’s message appears to be in tune with what many Europeans see as the popular mood in America.

America like Europe

And thirdly, Europe has seen the rise of demagogic politicians whose appeal and tactics are like those of Mr. Trump, although perhaps on a less combative scale. The National Front in France, led by Marine Le Pen, is poised to do very well in next year’s presidential election. The Alternatives for Germany, a right-wing, anti-euro and anti-immigrant party which won less than five per cent of the vote two years ago, is regularly drawing huge crowds and has the support of 21 per cent of German voters. A candidate from the far right nearly became president of Austria. And the extreme left is also flourishing, having captured control of Britain’s Labour party and campaigning strongly on anti-austerity platforms in Greece and Spain.


For all these reasons, Europe’s leaders have been circumspect in their comments on Trump. They know that next year they may have to deal with him as president of the United States. They do not want to give any hostages to fortune. And they are now quietly preparing contingency plans on what to do, should he be elected.

There are three main areas where Europe sees dangers: NATO and the challenge from President Putin, the world economy, and Washington’s reactions to global crises such as the Middle East and the fight against Islamist terrorism.

Future of NATO?

The first big challenge is how to maintain collective Western security if Trump carries out his promise not to honour the key Article Five of the NATO Treaty that commits America and all other members to come to the help of any member state attacked.

Those Europeans who now spend less than 2 per cent of their budget on defence and who have been denounced by Trump for relying on US protection are quietly looking at ways of increasing defence spending, especially in eastern Europe, which is fearful of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and former Soviet satellite nations.

The European Union is looking afresh at proposals for a European army less reliant on the US for manpower and logistics. Britain has made it clear that, even if it quits the EU, it will still play a full role in collective western defence.

Global economy

On the global economy, bankers, economists and investors are hoping to strengthen international cooperation and are ready to lobby hard to stop a Trump presidency from putting up tariff barriers and pulling out of trade deals with the rest of the world. They plan to work with leading US multinationals to keep world trade flows going. They are also looking to other leading industrialised nations for alternatives to the dominance of the dollar. And some governments are ready to offer new deals to Canada and Mexico, should Trump pull the US out of the North America free trade area.

Global crises

And in the handling of global crises, Europe wants to strengthen its links with American diplomats, military and intelligence officials in the hope that they will constrain Trump from over-reacting to any new crisis. His two slogans that have frightened Europe most are: “America first”, and “predictably unpredictable”.

The main fear is that Trump will order massive unilateral action if he sees US interests threatened, which could play straight into the hands of Russia, China and the enemies of the West. If possible, Europe wants its diplomats to intensify efforts to work with Russia in the Middle East and persuade other big powers to show restraint, should Trump order in the bombers to settle a problem.

Keep communications open with Republicans

Keeping lines of communication open to the other Republicans is also seen as essential. Trump will preside over a divided nation and party, should he win in November, and will inevitably turn to many of the mainstream Republicans he has alienated and who have denounced him.

Europe is hoping that Trump’s own inexperience will make him more ready to broaden his political base. Unlike Ted Cruz, he is more of an opportunist than an ideologue and may therefore change his mind quite radically on a range of issues, once he assumes office. This would make it easier for Europe to work with him through the established links with senior Republicans in Congress and those brought into the administration.

Stay out of the U.S. campaign

One thing European leaders will not do is to lobby American voters before the election. This inevitably backfires. Any overt campaigning by outsiders angers Americans, and Putin may soon find that his partisan backing of Trump could prove counterproductive. Even President Obama’s warning to Britain not to vote for Brexit was thought to have strengthened the Brexit camp. Europe’s right-wing politicians are already trying to forge personal links with Trump, as Nigel Farage’s visit to the Trump campaign has shown. They do not represent the mainstream of European voters, but they may do a useful job in preventing U.S. voters from seeing the whole world against them and rallying around Trump’s more aggressive stances.

“Contain” Trump

Most European leaders are appalled by the Trump stances on race, immigration and Islam, but will say little, knowing that his views find an echo in a growing number of their own voters. Instead of denouncing him, therefore, they are likely to search for ways to press for common approaches.

This effort will severely test Europe’s best diplomats. But 60 years ago the old policy of containment of Soviet Russia evolved into detente. Europe may have to live with a Trump presidency for at least four years, and is now seeking ways to contain its most alarming implications.


Michael Binyon is a GPI Senior Adviser. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.  


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.