Even as they insist they are not dancing to Donald Trump’s tune on Nato, European leaders are singing from a song sheet designed to appeal to the former US president and his Republican supporters.
Trump sparked fierce criticism from Western officials for suggesting he would not protect countries that failed to meet the transatlantic military alliance’s defence spending targets, and would even encourage Russia to attack them.
At the weekend, the comments by the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination hung over the Munich Security Conference, a big annual gathering of politicians, soldiers and diplomats that is often a barometer of US-European relations.
European leaders are anxious not only about Nato’s future if Trump beats incumbent President Joe Biden in November but also about a hold-up to a $60bn Ukraine aid package in the US Congress, as Republicans demand border security measures to pass the bill.
Ukrainian and Western leaders say the package is vital as Kyiv’s forces struggle almost two years after Russia’s invasion began. Moscow said on Sunday it had taken full control of the devastated eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka.
European leaders are reaching out to US lawmakers, business leaders and think tanks as part of efforts to influence the Trump camp that began even before his controversial comments a week ago.
Among their arguments: Europe is spending more on defence and will do more; such spending and aid for Ukraine are worth billions to US arms firms; and protecting Europe projects US strength to China — a major focus of Trump’s foreign policy.
“We Europeans must take much greater care of our own security, now and in the future,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the conference in the luxury Bayerischer Hof hotel, attended by dozens of US lawmakers.
“The willingness to do so is very great,” he declared.
Scholz and other European leaders, such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — the favourite to be Nato’s next boss — insisted they were getting more serious about defence because it was in their own interests, not because of Trump.
But they aim to persuade Trump and his followers that sticking with Nato, as he did during his presidency despite complaining loudly, would be good for them too.
“It is in the US interest to have a Nato alliance with strong allies that can reinforce US influence,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told Reuters in Munich. Late last month, current Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg travelled to the US for a visit partly designed to sell the alliance and support for Ukraine to the Trump camp.
He spoke at the Heritage Foundation, a Trump-friendly think tank in Washington, and visited a Lockheed Martin plant in Alabama that makes Javelin anti-tank missiles.
“The money which is allocated to Ukraine, very much of that money ends up in the United States. Because they buy weapons — for example, the Javelins — from defence producers in the United States,” Stoltenberg said in Munich.
Citing US concerns about China, he said: “The United States represents 25% of the world’s GDP. Together with Nato allies, we represent 50% of the world’s GDP and 50% of the world’s military might. So as long as we stand together, we are safe.”
European leaders say their higher defence spending reflects a view that Russia now poses a far greater security threat.
It also reflects a growing view among European governments that they will have to take more responsibility for their security in the years ahead, regardless of who wins the next US presidential election.
“The US over time, I think, will be less inclined to feel that they have to fully underwrite European security,” Latvian Foreign Minister Krisjanis Karins told Reuters.
Eighteen of Nato’s 31 members are expected to meet its defence spending target of at least 2% of GDP this year, up from 11 in 2023, the alliance says. Germany and France, the European Union’s biggest economies, are among those expecting to reach the goal.
The US spent around 3.5% of its GDP on defence in 2023, according to Nato estimates.
But defence is about much more than spending figures. The US also brings the might of a superpower, its nuclear arsenal, and a US-led command structure to Nato’s defence of Europe.
How much impact the Europeans’ arguments will have on Trump and Republican lawmakers is an open question.
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