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The Future of European-American Relations

November 18, 2016
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German Chancellor Merkel speaks with U.S. President Obama outside the Elmau castle in Kruen

© Reuters

United States’ President Barack Obama is in Europe to put the final touches on what he hopes will cement his legacy as one of the most pro-European leaders that the US has seen in decades. One primary goal of Obama’s last foreign trip in office is to assure the United States’ NATO allies of its commitment to the organization.

 President elect Donald Trump lambasted NATO on the campaign trail, calling for major changes to the alliance. Trump ultimately questioned the United States’ commitment to its NATO allies, and called for smaller nations relying heavily on US support to pay for the privilege.  NATO mandates that 2% of GDP must be spent on national defense budgets. However, even some of the biggest, most powerful countries in NATO do not comply with this (Germany only spends about 1.4% on the Bundeswehr.) Increasing military spending in Germany is unpopular across the political spectrum and it is unlikely Germany will make the jump to 2% anytime soon. Poland and Lithuania are two of the more notably European countries complying with the 2% rule. Trump’s relations with Russia could also impact his attitude toward NATO, as NATO and the Kremlin have long been at odds, even now 26+ years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Obama’s choice to visit Europe is a reassurance of the trans-Atlantic relationships he worked so hard to foster during his time in office. Obama met with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who he characterized as, “probably my closest international partner these last eight years,” among other world leaders in Berlin.

Obama’s choice to visit Germany is also a symbolic one. Relations between the two nations have strengthened under the two leaders. In a 2016 Pew poll 57% of Germans had favorable views of the United States, while 86 % of Germans said they have confidence in Barack Obama to do the right thing regarding world affairs. Time and time again Obama has reached out to Merkel and Germany in combatting global crises, rather than the United Kingdom and France, which separates him from his predecessors. In a post-Brexit world Germany is the face of the European Union now more than ever. The EU goes as Germany goes. Obama recognized this early in his presidency and made Merkel one of his closest confidants. The two collaborated on the 2008 financial crisis, the situation in Ukraine, Syria and the refugee crisis, among other things.

The election of Donald Trump and the end of Obama’s presidency marks a period of uncertainty for the European Union. Obama’s policy in office was to favor a strong European Union, and for the United States to maintain strong ties to the EU. Obama publicly stated his support for the United Kingdom’s “remain” campaign during the Brexit referendum. Obama emphasized the US’s desire to negotiate trade deals with the UK as part of the EU as a block, rather than individually. During the lead-up to the vote, Obama went as far to say that the UK will, “go to the back of the queue” in negotiating trade deals with the US if they were to go through with Brexit.

So what will a Donald Trump presidency mean for the European Union? For one, Trump has cozied up to a few prominent right-wing European politicians. While there is speculation about his true feelings toward Putin and the nature of the two’s relationship, Trump has met multiple times with the head of the UK Independence Party and one of Brexit’s biggest proponents, Nigel Farage. Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders made an appearance at the GOP convention over the summer in Cleveland to show his support for Donald Trump, not the first meeting of the two like-minded politicians.

For now, it’s all speculation, but changes are on the horizon for Europe. With France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Hungary all set for major elections in 2017, and a Trump presidency looming, the European-American connection Obama spent so hard to build and maintain is hanging in the balance.

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