February 15, 2024 - 10:30am

Shockwaves continue to spread across Europe following Donald Trump’s threat against Nato member states. In comments at a campaign rally on Saturday, the former and possibly future US president said that his America would not protect “delinquent” countries from attack by the Russians — and that he would “encourage them to do whatever the hell they want”.

By “delinquent” he meant Nato members not meeting the pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence — or, as many US Right-wingers perceive it, free-riding on American military strength.

Even though, as Thomas Fazi notes, it’s unlikely that Trump would actually pull out, European politicians are beginning to panic. A senior German Social Democrat, Katarina Barley, has even suggested that Europe can no longer rely on America’s nuclear umbrella. If she’s right about that then the European Union, if not completely defenceless, is in a much weaker position. Of course, one member state — France — has its own, smaller nuclear arsenal. Yet relying on the French Force de frappe would shift the balance of power within the EU. There’s also the political risk that a future French president might not be as pro-EU and anti-Putin as the incumbent. Right now, the polls give Marine Le Pen a 50-50 chance of succeeding Emmanuel Macron in 2027.

There are, however, a number of actions that Europe’s leaders can take in response to these threats. First, compared to the so-far impossible task of creating a European Army, it would be much simpler — and probably less expensive — for all Nato members to meet their 2% spending targets. Second, a boost to defence spending is an opportunity to re-industrialise. If Europe is to deter Russia, then at the very least it must match its capacity to manufacture armaments. Third, if the EU is to continue waging economic war against the Putin regime, then it must do so with credibility, starting with a crackdown on sanctions-busting activity by EU businesses.

Fourth, a successor to Nato Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg will have to be named soon. The obvious and expected candidate is Mark Rutte, currently the caretaker Prime Minister of the Netherlands. He has experience dealing with Trump — and agrees with him on Nato members paying their way.

Finally, the EU needs a fall-back position if Europe loses the American nuclear umbrella. This plan B needs to consist of more than hoping that the French don’t go wobbly. One option would be for the European Union itself to become a nuclear power. In theory, this would be more internationally acceptable than, say, Germany going it alone as a nuclear state. But how would a political entity that doesn’t even have a conventional military operate a nuclear deterrent on behalf of its 27 members? Even if control of the red button were subject to qualified majority voting, EU decision-making structures are simply too cumbersome. There’s a reason why nukes are exclusively controlled by sovereign governments.

This leaves just one option: the EU must swallow its pride and make a deal with the UK. Britain is a sovereign nuclear state, it has a strategic interest in Europe not being invaded, and it is much less likely go far-Right than the French. If only as a backstop, a British nuclear umbrella can protect the continent.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.