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Facing Trump Pressure, EU Invested More In Own Defense. Will It Continue With Biden?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The defeated president spent much of his single term criticizing U.S. allies in Europe. Among other things, he demanded that European allies spend more money on defending themselves. What do European leaders do now that Trump is leaving? NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Berlin.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It was less than two years into Donald Trump's presidency when French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron began speaking publicly about a new direction for European security. It was 2018, and Trump had just pulled the U.S. out of a Cold War-era nuclear disarmament treaty meant to protect Europe.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

SCHMITZ: "We will not protect Europeans," said Macron to radio station Europe 1, "if we don't decide to have a real European army."

ULRIKE FRANKE: The election of Donald Trump as president has contributed to the EU thinking more geopolitically or at least trying to become more independent.

SCHMITZ: But Trump wasn't the only factor, says Ulrike Franke of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and 2016's Brexit referendum also contributed to the idea.

FRANKE: The Europeans are incredibly dependent on the United States and on the nuclear umbrella of NATO and here again, the United States. And there is an increasing realization that this is the case. And the EU has wanted to do something about this for a while.

SCHMITZ: And it did. Soon after Trump was elected, the European Union established the European Defence Fund, a continent-wide effort to coordinate and increase investment in defense. But its $15 billion budget was slashed by more than a third this year to prioritise COVID-19 relief funds, leaving European security back at square one.

THOMAS KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: The security of Europe is called NATO.

SCHMITZ: Thomas Klina Birkhoff is vice president of The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: That is where deterrence is. That is where the money is. That is where the alliance is. That is where the structures are. Everything else is aspiration.

SCHMITZ: He says the term European strategic autonomy has become a buzzword in security circles, but it's a long way off. What is real and there to protect Europe is NATO. And whether it's due to Trump's constant badgering or not, European countries like Germany have committed more funding than ever to NATO. Germany has already increased its defense budget by 40% since 2014 and it'll likely double that over the next three years.

KLEINE-BROCKHOFF: I think what people have in mind is a crisis in Asia will put Europe in a situation with fewer or no American troops and neighbors to the east, which will be up to mischief.

SCHMITZ: He's talking about Russia, a persistent threat to the security of the region and a potentially bigger one should the U.S. reduce its troop presence in Europe as it has during Trump's presidency. But instead of labeling NATO obsolete as President Trump has, President-elect Biden has vowed to restore and expand the alliance. While this seems to put the notion of America first to rest, what's clear is that after four years of Trump, Europe has learned that it must put itself first when it comes to its defense.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to French President Emmanuel Macron as the prime minister.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "REEL LIFE (EVOLUTION II)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 19, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
In this report, we incorrectly refer to French President Emmanuel Macron as the prime minister.