Drowned out by the noise of this week’s remarkable US election was a telling speech by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker given hours after Donald Trump claimed victory.
Speaking in Berlin about what Europe will look like in 2050, Juncker, who is a former prime minister of Luxembourg and one of the more outspoken EU officials you are likely to meet, admitted his prepared notes would be of no use because they assumed Hillary Clinton had won.
Instead, he spoke off the cuff, beginning with a not-unexpected appeal for the US and the EU to “keep this transatlantic relationship in order” regardless of who lived in the White House. “The world needs a close relationship between the United States and the European continent,” he added.
However, Juncker then changed tack. Arguing that Europe needed “more security” and not just for “the anti-terror fight”, he called for an overhaul of EU defence strategy because the “idea that the Americans will eternally see to…European security is not true”.
“We have to do this ourselves, which is why we need a new approach to building a European security union with the end goal of establishing a European army.”
Coming less than five months after Britain’s shock decision to the leave the EU, Trump’s election represents another threat to the continent’s geopolitical stability. During the US election campaign the Republican candidate made no secret of his distain for Europe, chiding Paris for its response to terrorism (“France is no longer France”) and warning his NATO allies they may have to defend themselves unless they lifted their contribution to the alliance’s budget.
At the same time Trump dismayed western leader by expressing admiration for Vladimir Putin despite Russia’s aggressive attempts to maintain its influence throughout the domains of the former Soviet Union .
It would be wrong to assume that a Trump Presidency automatically means the unconditional security guarantee that has underwritten European peace and prosperity since World War II has expired. Asked this week if he shared Trump’s scepticism about NATO, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell replied: “I think Article 5 (of the NATO treaty) means something: you attack any member of NATO, you have us to deal with. I want the Russians to understand that fully”.
Nevertheless, the risks are obvious. Juncker’s call for enduring transatlantic unity reflects widespread fears within Europe that relations with its biggest trading partner and most important ally will be tested like never before.
At the same time, however, it seems Brussels senses an opportunity.
In recent years repeated killing sprees carried out by Islamic extremists, an unprecedented influx of migrants and stubbornly weak economic growth have stretched the 28-nation bloc to breaking point. With the UK already making its way slowly to the exit – and eurosceptic parties expected to play a pivotal roll in next year’s French, German and Dutch elections – there are growing fears that the European Project could be next.
The European Commission’s decision to claw back billions of euros in taxes from Apple, the French government’s public displays of frustration over Washington’s tactics during Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations and German anger over revelations the US National Security Agency tapped chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone all serve as a reminder that the groundswell of populism on the continent carries with it more than a whiff of anti-Americanism.
It is against this backdrop that Juncker felt confident enough to once again raise the prospect of a European army.
A unified defence force has long been part of Brussel’s goal of an “ever closer” union but it also came to be regarded a symbol of EU-overreach as the political tide turned towards protecting the sovereignty of member states rather than promoting greater integration.
Juncker himself declared during a speech to the European Parliament in September that the Brexit vote was a “wake up call” from voters worried that so-called “United States of Europe” approach to immigration and security was failing. But he went on to say Europe faced a choice between “piggy-backing on the military might of others” or “toughening up” its defence policy.
By raising the subject of a European army in his first public appearance after the US election, Juncker is saying Trump’s victory represents a chance for the continent to take the “tough” option. It will be interesting to see if the rest of the EU, whose leaders are dealing with increasingly volatile domestic electorates, decides it is a risk worth taking .