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European Union Nato Analysis

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EU gauges Nato relations after Trump victory

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Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. AFP/Thierry Charlier

European Union foreign and defence ministers gathered in Brussels on Monday for a routine two-day security and defence review suddenly overshadowed by the prospect of a reduced role of the US, following the election of Donald Trump.


While some EU officials have said it’s too early to know what will change until Trump unveils his administration’s foreign policy, remarks of the president-elect during the campaign have prompted pledges to strengthen Europe’s own role in world affairs.

“There is a need to strengthen our security profile,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said as she arrived at the talks, referring to plans to boost cooperation among member states. “It’s what our citizens need, it’s what our citizens ask and expect from us.”

Tuesday’s talks will look specifically at the EU’s relationship with Nato, an institution Trump described as “obsolete” during his campaign.

At the very least, some member states are already facing new pressure to boost their defence spending to meet the 2 per cent of GDP target for all members of the military alliance.

“One of the great things about our government is we do spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence,” British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson told reporters. “I personally think it’s a good thing if other European countries do show more of their responsibilities and spend a bit more on defence.”

Uncertainty prevails for now

Trump’s unexpected victory has forced EU governments to face the prospect of equally unexpected changes in what is by definition a long-term policy area.

“When talking about armed forces, how they are structured, how they are equipped, how we do defence research and development, how we do procurement, which weapons to develop and to buy, it’s usually a matter of decades,” says Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Even if you say we are going to jump-start a reform today, it will take affect when Trump leaves office.”

With the future of relations between the EU and Nato essentially depending on whether Trump follows through on remarks made during the campaign, some in the EU are fearing the loss of a key player in terms of security and defence.

“In the crisis management portfolio,” Gressel says, “Europe relied on the US always being a part of the equation, with the EU focusing on the softer, non-military part of crisis management and post-crisis management, because the US does the hard-core part.”

But it is possible Trump will give more leeway to the Pentagon that he has perhaps let on, limiting changes to seeking more funding from European Nato members.

“Most professional soldiers and the rest in the US military regard Nato as useful, even though they do contribute extremely heavily to it, compared with Western European nations,” says Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford.

“What they will want from Trump is for him to put pressure on a number of European states to increase defence spending,” Rogers continues. “Whether that will happen is another matter, but essentially I think that is the way it is likely to go: more of the burden on Nato rather than something huge, such as a US withdrawal from Nato.”