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The stage is set: it will be a re-run of 2016, with Joe Biden facing Donald Trump this November. These US elections are the most consequential in decades. It is the topic that dominates private conversations in Brussels and across Europe – more than the European elections, or who will get the top jobs in the EU. Uncertainty and trepidation loom large, with a tendency to substitute policy planning with ‘wait and see’. It is time now for European policymakers to prepare for all scenarios, precisely when the outcome is still open but with so much at stake.

The word you hear the most in European debates on the US elections is ‘regardless’: the basic idea that Europe should do a number of things now ‘regardless’ of who will win, Biden or Trump. This list usually includes strengthening EU defence policies and capacities, including spending more and better; ramping up support for Ukraine; pushing ahead with EU enlargement and reform; and boosting the EU’s resilience in the area of critical technologies. That motto of ‘regardless’ has merit. It is the right substantive agenda. But as a strategy, it is not enough.

European leaders need to have an honest conversation about what a Trump victory would mean

European leaders need to have an honest conversation about what a Trump victory would mean. Yes, there are longer-term trends reshaping US society and politics – so Trump is as much an expression of a changing US as a cause of those changes. And yes, in some respect there is continuity and overlap between Trump 1.0 and Biden – for instance on China strategy or unilateral economic measures.

But it would be a mistake – analytically and politically – to downplay the degree to which Trump 2.0 could trigger disruption. He is now a more radicalised individual who is more in control of his party, and he would be taking power in a world that has changed for the worse since 2016. In essence, Trump 2.0 would be a ‘super-accelerator’, deepening and accelerating the existing trends towards a power-political world.

What should Europe do now? In addition to finding the resources and commitments to implement the so-called ‘regardless’ agenda, European leaders need to do three things on method:

  1. Invest in unity. A Trump victory would split the EU: there is no point pretending otherwise – and Trump would play on this. So, European leaders need to agree common lines and messages, including on how they would respond if Trump implements some of the more radical ideas he has floated on the campaign trail (ending support for Ukraine, imposing a 10 % external tariff and withdrawing, yet again, from the Paris climate agreement, to name just several). What would Europe do in these circumstances? The key word here is ‘invest’: Europeans needs to internalise that they cannot have European unity, which they all claim to seek, that is 100 % on their terms. Everyone will need to ‘give’ a little and invest in convergent positions.   

  2. Build leverage. Europeans should realise they have a lot of assets and sources of influence in the US. They should avoid being constrained by a sense of fatalism or a psychology of weakness. From being the first source of FDI into the US; to big ticket defence procurement deals, to the support it can offer to the US around the world in pursuit of shared strategic objectives, Europe should not be shy in leveraging these assets to shape the choices that a Tump administration might take – pushing back, if needed.

  3. Forge coalitions. Europe is not alone. It needs an active outreach campaign in the event of a Trump victory. This begins with a strong push towards building partnerships with the plural South (a more accurate label than Global South). There will be strong demands and expectations for Europe to step up its ‘offers’ on global public goods and multilateralism in the event that a second Trump administration steps away from such commitments. From climate, to development, to human rights protection, there could be a lot of gaps to fill.

There is another side to the coalition-building work – equally needed yet less talked about – and it relates to the ‘like-minded’. There is a whole group of fellow democracies that will equally be scratching their heads and wondering what to do under Trump 2.0.: Japan, Australia, Canada etc. The EU needs to link up with them and work on joint strategies.

Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction just as hope is not a strategy

This group of course includes the UK. A possible return of Trump will present all sorts of challenges, but a likely upside is that it will push the UK and EU closer together again. With the additional possibility of a new government in London, there will be good reasons to deepen security cooperation and reduce the self-inflicted harm of Brexit.

‘We don’t know what will happen in November’ is a common refrain when it comes to the US elections. True enough. Trump may not win. But uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction just as hope is not a strategy. European planning for all scenarios should start now.