Most European leaders are looking aghast and with a hint of moral superiority at what is taking place in the United States after the presidential election on November 3, 2020.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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When U.S. President Donald Trump claimed victory on November 4 and said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the counting of postal ballots—which make up many of the votes that remain to be counted—several German politicians knew exactly what this implied. The basic principles of democracy were being challenged. The very idea of what America represents was being threatened. No wonder they dread the idea of another four years of Trump.

But they are not naive enough to believe that if Democratic candidate Joe Biden enters the White House in January 2021, all the tensions and disputes Europe had with Trump will simply become things of the past.

A Biden presidency will be so preoccupied with domestic issues that the foreign policy agenda—and that includes tackling climate change—will be put on the backburner. The European Union, unless it fundamentally changes the way it functions, will be in big trouble. And if Trump is reelected, the EU will be in even bigger trouble.

It’s not only because Trump had put paid to the multilateral institutions that the United States was instrumental in building after World War II. It’s because several leaders inside the EU will be delighted by a Trump victory. It would give a real fillip to nationalist, populist leaders, whether in Hungary, in Poland, or in Slovenia, where Prime Minister Janez Janša congratulated Trump prematurely.

Trump’s illiberal views of democracy, accountability, and the judiciary and his penchant for authoritarian leaders is more to their liking than Europe’s values based on the rule of law.

That is why both the leaders of the EU institutions and in particular German Chancellor Angela Merkel have to use the outcome of the U.S. election—whether the winner is Biden or Trump—to drag Europe out of its complacency.

It’s a complacency based on an unwillingness to take security threats seriously and collectively. It’s a complacency that has allowed the Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Polish leaders—to name just a few—to run roughshod over the rule of law. If ever there was a time for the EU to act politically and strategically, surely this moment has come.

First, the EU has to take measures to sanction governments that undermine the basic values of the EU and its treaty. Whether it’s the European Commission, the European Parliament, or the European Council that represents member states, it’s time to stop paying lip service to values and stop resorting to mild threats against member states flouting democratic values.

Second, and this is going to demand clarity from Berlin, the EU is not going to have any strategic clout if it does not further integrate politically. The longer the delay, the greater the risk of further political fragmentation inside the EU. Nationalist and populist leaders, but also inertia by the leaders of EU institutions, are feeding this trend.

Third, EU leaders have to recognize that Europe’s security and defense anchored on NATO cannot be taken for granted.

Trump’s disdain for NATO is well known. As for a Biden presidency, such an administration is not going to bend over backward to its allies. Just recall how the defense secretaries serving under former president Barack Obama were in despair over NATO’s strategic and financial shortfalls.

Pentagon chiefs are also frustrated over Europe’s inability to take its own security and defense seriously. This is where European leaders, particularly the big countries, have to explain if they want “strategic autonomy”—and what this term exactly means—or if they want to give NATO real strategic teeth.

Either way, NATO and the EU are in the same boat. Since most European countries are members of both organizations, they share the same intellectual malaise: the absence of a strategic culture that would embrace the idea of hard power.

This absence is glaring when it comes to Europe’s relations with its Eastern and Southern neighbors.

It’s all very well for European leaders to complain that Trump has little interest in the conflict raging between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh, or the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Belarus, or the destructive foreign policy pursued by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

But since all these issues affect Europe’s security and stability, the EU needs to assume the political and strategic capacity to tackle them.

As it is, the leadership vacuum left by the United States and the inability of the EU to compensate in any way for this vacuum is being exploited by the protagonists in these neighboring countries and by Russia.

Whoever sits in the White House come January will not restore American global leadership overnight. That should give the Europeans all the more reason to discard a complacent mindset that is damaging the union’s interests, damaging its values, and damaging any attempts to become a major strategic player.