With the rise of Donald Trump and similar currents on the old continent, political analysts have dedicated numerous articles and blogs to the negative side of populism. While I am not an admirer of this new phenomenon myself, populism does have at least one positive side. In this article, I argue that the rise in populism has paved the way for further European integration. Although populists fiercely oppose the EU as an institution, Donald Trump’s remarks on NATO and Britain leaving the EU has opened the door for strengthened European cooperation on defence matters.
The European institutions have been at the heart of the criticism launched by populist politicians across the continent. For example, Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, has stated that she aims to reverse the EU’s core principles of free movement of people and the primacy of EU law. She has also expressed the desire to have a French referendum on Eurozone membership in case dismantling the zone as a whole proved impossible.
Overseas, the tides have also turned against the EU. While the US had so far been a vital inspirer of the European project, current US President Donald Trump favours tearing up the bloc all together. In a meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump called Brexit ‘a blessing for the world’. Allegedly, officials from Trump’s entourage have also contacted EU leaders to ask which country would leave next.
Although populism is highly critical of the EU, ironically, the political current has become a driver of further European integration in the field of defence cooperation. Statements made by President Trump and the UK’s departure from the bloc has smoothed the path for European leaders to push for defence integration, dreaming of a fully-fledged European army.
During the elections, President Trump called NATO ‘obsolete’ questioning the purpose of the organisation. He also declared that the US has been paying an unfair proportion of the bloc’s defence spending.
In March 2016, as part of an interview on CNN, then-candidate Trump affirmed that the US should rethink its position in NATO. This implicitly meant that he questioned the organisation’s article 5, which holds the principle of collective defence that proclaims that an attack against one is an attack against all.
At the Brussels’ NATO summit in May of 2017, Trump was expected to explicitly endorse the principle of collective defence. However, the President departed from the planned speech and withheld from the endorsement. He also questioned the member states’ failed commitment to the bloc’s military expenditure standards.
Trump’s remarks on NATO and his refusal to support the organisation’s article 5, has made European leaders fear for their states’ security leading to a call for further EU defence integration. During the EU Bratislava summit of September 2016, France and Germany pleaded for an EU ‘defence union’ that includes a permanent military headquarters and joint procurement of high-tech equipment.
Other calls for more EU integration in this matter came from, for example, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who called for more defence unity two days after the election of Donald Trump. After the NATO and G7 summit of May 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Europe should take fate into its own hands, referring to defence cooperation.
While Britain initially played a leading role in the founding of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), a change in government led the Brits to renounce this position. Arguing that EU defence integration would undermine NATO, the country used its veto-power to block further cooperation.
For example, in July 2011, former British Foreign Secretary William vetoed the creation of a permanent EU military headquarters, an idea supported by most EU member states, by arguing that the UK prefers not to duplicate structures that already exist within NATO.
As a response to the earlier mentioned Bratislava Summit, British Defence Minister Michael Fallon expressed that the UK would block all moves towards a European defence union as long as it remains a member of the bloc.
Presently, as the CSDP veto-player prepares to leave the European Union, there is fresh optimism within EU diplomatic circles for further EU defence integration. Furthermore, Giovanni Faleg, at the Centre for European Policy Studies, noted that with the departure of Great Britain the CSDP governance structure might even function better and there would be less opposition to the establishment of permanent structured cooperation.
While Trump’s remarks on NATO have brought EU leaders closer together in the field of defence cooperation, the UK’s departure from the bloc has made a defence union a viable pathway for the EU. Much against its will, populism has become a driving force for the European project.